Information and Media Literacy in Post Secondary Education

New literacy in the Digital Age: understanding the dynamics of needed information and media competencies in a post-secondary educational setting.


As we progress through the early stages of the twenty-first century, we are witnessing a dramatic change in the use of traditional text and words; they are rapidly being augmented and replaced with images. These images are becoming central to communication and meaning making and are no longer there to only entertain and illustrate (Mitchell, 1995). Thus we are quickly moving into a media rich, visual world made possible with advancements in computer technologies.  In 2008 for example, the photo sharing site, Flickr, had more than two billion images and in January 2008 YouTube had 79 million viewers and 3 billion videos (Felton, 2008). This visual, screen-based world is the domain of today’s post-secondary students who are visual learners, “intuitive visual communicators” and “more visually literate then previous generations” (Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005, ch. 2.). This pervasive new form of media requires the development of knowledge and skills to help value and interpret what they mean.

Information, whether it be text or visual based, is more abundant today through the Internet, then it was 20 years ago. Individuals no longer need to go out of their way to search for information by going to the Library. Today proliferating information sources are available instantly through the Internet, community resources, special interest organizations and television. Going further, information today is now searching for and finding individuals based on their previous search habits. This immediate access to volumes of information does have challenges as it is increasingly in unfiltered formats which question its reliability, validity and authenticity (ALA, 2000). Like media sources, text and visual information require a honed set of knowledge and skills to help determine the validity of this information and how to use it effectively.

From these examples and many other aspects of digital technologies, comes the need to expand the traditional definition of literacy beyond text and numbers to a whole new agenda of multi-literacies including visual, media, digital, computer and information literacies.


Post-secondary institutes invest large sums of money in information technology to support both teaching to meet the needs of students and to enhance student technology knowledge and skills to develop the graduates that employers demand (Lewis, Coursol and Khan, 2001). Employers expect graduates to have current technology knowledge and skills to support them and to provide growth in the workplace (Wilkinson, 2006). Many employers expect their employees to be information literate and consider information literacy as important as communication skills (ILAC 2003). However, expectations around information technology use and the associated required skills are constantly changing as technology rapidly evolves.

Associated with the development and use of digital tools and technology is the development of specialized literacies that are growing and changing rapidly as technology changes. Traditionally, literacy referred to reading and writing, and like numeracy, these skills have never been optional to be a fully functional member of society (Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan, 2006). Since the computer revolution for example, computer and digital literacy have appeared and evolved, and are currently merging into a broader literacy called information literacy.

There are several types of technology related literacy discussed in the literature: computer, digital, information, visual and media. Computer literacy deals with the use of computers and related technologies. Digital literacy goes beyond basic computer skills and deals with the use of information with digital technologies (Media Awareness Network, 2010). Information literacy deals with abilities to analyze information to support decision making. Some researchers (as reported by Higntte, Margavio and Margavio 2009) argue that the concept of computer literacy is dated and that we should focus on information literacy. Visual literacy as defined by Felten (2008), p. 60) “involves the ability to understand, produce and use culturally significant images, objects and visual actions”. Media literacy deals with critically analyzing messages that people watch, hear and read.

All of these different literacies are important; however this essay will focus on information and media literacy skills as they play a key role that supports workforces competing in the global economy (Finn, 2004). In addition, the Media Awareness Network (2010) reported in 2010 that Canada has fallen behind many countries in developing our digital economy. They also state that Canada has not made digital literacy a cornerstone of our digital economy strategy like some of our competitors have such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Information literacy stems from the need to find and use appropriate information, thus it has a cornerstone in library science. With the development of information and communications technologies over the last 20 years, information and library science have evolved to incorporate these technologies as tools to help find and process information.

Media literacy stems from the need to critically evaluate different forms of media and to effectively create content and communicate it through various forms, thus it has a cornerstone in media studies, mass communication, journalism and education. In post-secondary education then, media literacy is taught through either media or education lenses.

 Media and Information Literacy Standards

In the US, media literacy is defined as: “ ….the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms” Aufderheide, 1993, p. xx) and “a media literate person … can decode, evaluate, analyze and produce both print and electronic media” (Aufderheide, 1997, p. 79). Conceptualizations of media literacy include: “a) Media are constructed and construct reality; (b) Media have commercial implications, (c) Media have ideological and political implications; (d) Form and content are related in each medium, each of which has unique aesthetics, codes and conventions; and (e) Receivers negotiate meaning in media” (Aufderheide, 1997, p. 80). Canada has very similar conceptualizations with eight key concepts for media literacy (AML, 2011)

In the US, there are no direct media standards for post-secondary education, however there are two indirect media standards. The Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC) is responsible “for the evaluation of professional journalism and mass communications programs in colleges and universities” (ACEJMC, 2004, para. 1). These standards are aimed at practitioners. The second indirect standard is with the National Communication Association (NCA) that has media standards and competencies developed for K-12 education, thus these standards are aimed at students (Christ, 2004).

There are many different definitions of information literacy in the literature. The American Library Association (ALA) defines literacy as a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (ALA, 1989). In addition, the ALA describes an information literate person with the ability to: (1) determine the information needed, (2) access the information needed, (3) evaluate the information and its sources critically, (4) incorporate and use information effectively and (5) understand the economic, legal, ethical and social issues associated with accessing and using information.

Information literacy standards for post-secondary education are well documented by the Association of College and Research Libraries a division of the American Library Association (ALA, 2000). These higher education standards are designed to articulate with K-12 literacy competencies to provide a continuum of expectations for students of all ages and levels. The standards support information literacy abilities as follows: five standards, each with several performance indicators and these in turn supported with outcomes.

Similarly in the United Kingdom, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) have developed standards, or information literacy pillars. Seven pillars of information literacy were developed in 1999 and were recently updated and expanded in 2011 due to a broader range of terminology and concepts included in information literacy today (SCONUL, 2011). SCONUL currently defines information literacy broader than in the North American context as it includes digital, visual, media, academic literacy in addition to the traditional aspects of information literacy. The seven key pillar terms are: identify, scope, plan, gather, evaluate, manage and present.

Jarson (2010) provides a concise summary of issues and sources of information for information literacy in higher education. Included in these sources are definitions and standards, curriculum models, plans and instruction, embedded librarianship, assignment design, assessments, multi-institutional projects and toolkits.

 Post-Secondary Education

Media Literacy

Mihailidis (2008) describes the state of media literacy in US higher education as tenuous, inconsistent, marginal and often contested resulting in intangible and incoherent media literacy learning outcomes. He blames this on three general trends: late introduction, thus the US lags behind other major English speaking countries, second, most initiatives related to media literacy and scholarship has been developed for K-12 education and third, the US definition of media literacy is based on broad and figurative terminology.

Several scholars (as reported by Mihailidis, 2008), have connected the need for media literacy with civic processes, citizenship and democratic rights. Masterman (1985 and 1998) described the need for media literacy to support participatory democracy for citizens to have power, make reasonable decisions and to become change agents. He also encourages students to strengthen their values and beliefs about democracy through increased media literacy. Further, Mihailidis (2008) encourages citizens to pursue lifelong learning supported with media literacy to find and use relevant information related to their lives, community and country.

Holistic media education as described by Duran, Yousman, Walsh and Longshore (2008) takes media literacy beyond the traditional textural form of critically analysing messages, to a contextual form that deals with production and consumption of media. This involves asking questions such as: why are messages produced, who produces the messages and under what conditions and constraints were they produced (Jhally and Lewis, 1998).

In summary, the literature seems to agree that media literacy education stops for the most part at the end of a student’s K-12 journey. It only continues in post-secondary for students who are enrolled in media studies, mass communication, journalism and education programs.

 Information Literacy

Information literacy skills are important across most disciplines of post-secondary education. Information literacy is critical for any student gathering information or conducting research. A study in the US in 2009 revealed that college students almost always turned to Google or Wikipedia for everyday research, but for course related research they used course readings and Google first. They also used library resources; online databases, for course related research but underutilized librarians; only about 20% used librarians. The study concludes that in general, college students “dial down the aperture of all the different resources that are available to them in the digital age” (Head and Eisenberg, 2009, p. 3). These results are supported by research summarized by (Van de Vord, 2010) that indicates current post-secondary students lack critical thinking skills needed to evaluate information accessed and thus do not have the information literacy skills to be successful in the twenty first century.


There is a connection between information and media literacy. The critical evaluation and thinking skills developed to find and use appropriate information can also be used to critically analyze messages. Van de Vord, (2010) found a significant positive correlation between information and media literacy skills of distance students taking on-line courses. Thus critical thinking skills are the key to student media and information literacy skills. To build on the media and information literacy skills of students transitioning from K-12, post-secondary institutes need to apply critical thinking skills to situations in the curriculum that allow students to increase their media and information skills. This can and is being done through specific courses to address these literacies or integrated throughout the courses in programs. The Information Literacy Across the Curriculum Continuous Improvement Team recommends the course integrated approach ILAC, 2003). General education outcomes can be easily expanded to include media and information literacy by broadening the interpretation of critical thinking skills.


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2 Responses to Information and Media Literacy in Post Secondary Education

  1. Such an informative and thoroughly-researched article, Doug. Your focus on how information literacy empowers citizens to become agents of change is in my mind an essential key. But extending information and computer literacy among our students is only a part – promoting computer literacy skills among teachers enhances the overall societal impact even further – when our teachers grasp the importance of a concept of literacy which extends well beyond just reading and writing, the chances of our students succeeding in those crucial areas will be that much greater.

  2. Gordana Jugo says:

    A great research! You’ve made it obvious that information and media literacy are sine qua non for students to enter workforce as well as for all of us to effectively pursue communication and meaning making. You have also showed that media literacy is a universal skill, which is in HE unfortunately limited only to some areas of study. This reminds me on how my application for financing ETEC 531: Curriculum Issues in Cultural and Media Studies was refused with explanation that it wasn’t relevant for my job as an adult educator in the field of ICT.

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