‘New School’ Literacy: Concepts, Context, and the Self Print E-mail
By Sean Cordes   


The idea that the nature of information has changed surrounds us: we live in an ‘information society’, driven by a global ‘knowledge economy’, where the ‘medium is the message’, and many of us suffer from ‘information overload’. The ways and means for managing information are increasing daily. As information needs change, the requirements of libraries to meet these needs are moving from traditional services of providing access to materials and assistance in selecting them towards the facilitation of user need in the areas of “multimedia and telecommunications, information literacy and inquiry, learner needs analysis, collaboration and curriculum integration and learner performance diversification” (Harvey, p. 11).
Participation in the processes of information exchange is shifting from centralisation to broader civic participation. Although reading and writing are still the foundation of knowledge, literacy in this age means more than the ability to read and write; it requires a complex set of skills including: access, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and use of information in a variety of modes. And while the students of today are indeed digital natives, this does not confirm their savvy with the skills and concepts required to thrive in modern information life space filled with visual and symbolic data from a variety of cultural perspectives.
A signpost of these changes is evolving notions of literacy captured through buzzwords like information literacy, information fluency, information competency, and information expertise. One thing is certain, libraries stand on the forefront of managing this change, and they way librarians address student need and the degree to which they are successful in doing so play an important role in the ability of students to thrive academically, personally, and professionally.
To develop a better understanding of the role library instruction plays in this process requires discussion of the concept of literacy in multiple modes. A framework for doing so can be found through the exploration of modern information in terms of the activity of information access, creation, and use, and the impact of these activities for individuals and the surrounding community.

Coming to terms with modern literacy

The information we rely on to guide our lives comes in many forms and requires a number of strategies and techniques to use effectively. The terms educators and researcher use to define these areas are boundless and include areas such as: Technology Literacy, Spatial Literacy, Historical Literacy, Political Literacy, Visual Literacy, Media Literacy, Information Literacy, and Cultural Literacy, among many others (Abilock 2008). The term ‘multiliteracies’ was coined by the New London Group to reign in these discrete areas of literacy that touch academic fields of study: it describes a broadened approach to literacy that included multimodal textual practices, such as linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial modes, as well as the idea literacies that are culturally grounded (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 7).
In practice, it can be helpful to group literacies into four broad categories (Visual Literacy, Media Literacy, Information Literacy, and Multicultural Literacy) that may be thought of as encompassing many of the other literacy themes. A description of these broad categories includes:
  1. Information Literacy – the ability to evaluate information across a range of media; recognise when information is needed; locate, synthesise, and use information effectively; and accomplish these functions using technology, communication networks, and electronic resources;
  2. Visual Literacy – the ability to analyse, create, and use, images and video using technology and media to enable critical thinking, communication, decision-making and understanding;
  3. Multicultural Literacy – the ability to acknowledge, compare, contrast, and appreciate commonalities and differences in cultural behaviours beliefs and values, within and between cultures;
  4. Media Literacy – the process of accessing, analysing, evaluating and creating messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres and forms. It includes the tools and skills used to create media objects, and the concepts used to evaluate what we watch, see and read.

Multimodal literacy requires in part a new sensibility, one that promotes a self responsibility for the acquisition and use of knowledge that is flexible, exploratory, and ethical. 

Multimodal literacy is the synthesis of multiple modes of communication. This communication can result in a transformation of the singular modes into a form that often contains new or multiple meanings. The multimodal object can require a range of tools, skills, and sensibilities and often reflects collaborative as well as individual effort. Multimodal literacy requires in part a new sensibility, one that promotes a self responsibility for the acquisition and use of knowledge that is flexible, exploratory, and ethical. Today’s students consume and create information with a wealth of tools at their disposal for performing these tasks, including wikis, blogs, graphics and presentation software and social networks.
Given the gamut of multimodal forms, and the tools, skills, and conceptual knowledge required to make sense of them, a lexicon to describe them is useful, but falls short of guiding the educational and informational goals of our students (and ourselves).
Regarding the dynamic nature and purpose of information as it relates to the individual, William Badke offers this insight:
Information is supposed to inform. That means it has to be reliable, relevant, current, and so on. There was a time when people believed that, given the right information, we could solve any problem the human race encountered. They thought that the power of reason could be used in a totally objective way to wade through all the relevant data and come up with all the right answers, even with the truth. Now we’re no longer even sure what the questions are (and we can’t remember last Tuesday) (Badke, 2004, p. 1).
And despite the Net Generation’s digital upbringing, and confidence with self-chosen tools and techniques, questions remain about their effectiveness with information tasks arising ‘outside-the-box’, such as class work and life skills, and the understanding of concepts that lead to efficiency in these areas (Lorenzon & Dzubian, 2006). While an understanding of multimodal literacy is helpful, it is the fluency to work effectively with these literacies individually and as a whole that will bring academic and personal success for librarians, instructors, and students. Viewing information (and literacies) in isolation undercuts the ability to bring forth knowledge. And the creation and application of knowledge is an active process between information objects and individuals that lead to meaning.