A Web of Literacies


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This presentation is a treatment of the Web of Literacies concepts developed by me and Chris Pallaris to improve the international affairs workforce and generate better outcomes.

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  • I’m Sean Costigan, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, University of Calcutta. It’s an honor to be presenting here at the Institute of Defense Analyses. To begin, let me note that portions of today’s presentation are based on continuing research with a close colleague, Chris Pallaris at ETH Zurich, and on two panels we put together for the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. The research points I’ll be discussing here stem from our professional work, efforts teaching students of international relations at the graduate level in North America, Europe and Asia, working with professors, and government analysts and researchers in the wider security community.
  • Though the historian in me is careful to suggest we are in the midst of something entirely new, I’m also reminded of that revolutions are rarely predicted but seem to stem from obvious reasons in hindsight. So, that said, allow me to start by noting that Governments everywhere are grappling with complex informational challenges. To put this in context, today’s international environment is characterized by a number of mega-trends, many of which we are already familiar with. These include the onward march of globalization; the rapid proliferation of seemingly systemic and, in some instances, existential security challenges; the unflagging information and communications revolution which in many corners of the world is just beginning; the emergence of disruptive technologies and ideas; and the general acceleration of life, business cycles and timetables. As the world rushes at us, we rush to meet it.
  • Other trends are more subtle, but their impact is no less profound: the marketization of states and societies; the remaking of hierarchies; the rapid democratization and uptake of knowledge; the shrinking of organizational perspectives and time horizons; Increasing information and overload, perhaps to the detriment of policy makers understanding of complex issues. Consider the request for “one pagers” -- how really are we, as informed and knowledgeable analysts, to offer anything resembling a complete picture as a series on bullet points? And yet, the dynamic tension of too much information and the need for distillation and amplification remains. Finally, as a portion of this presentation, I ask that we consider the growing disconnect between theory and reality that largely prevents single-discipline theoreticians from understanding and properly interpreting these shifts. Indeed, taking but one example of notable failure in the social sciences, IR specialists have a proven track record at not being particularly good forecasters, whatever their theoretical penchant. Serving as a wake-up call Philip Tetlock’s long-term study of political science specialists has shown that specialists are not significantly better than non-specialists at predicting the future. Indeed, the bigger the name the worse the forecasts. Notably, experts in demand, Tetlock says, “were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.”
  • Taken as whole, then, these trends have alerted us to our inability to understand the complexity of forces at work and fashion effective communication and strategic responses. They have also made us acutely aware of the failings and limitations of our educational systems. Thus, these issues need to be addressed as a matter of priority. The solutions, I argue, lie first and foremost in our educational system.
  • Thanks to the Internet and the Web, knowledge of international affairs - indeed of any discipline - is the common inheritance of every human being with access to the Web. The democratization of knowledge, like the democratization of politics, has rendered unto individuals both heightened responsibility and the opportunity to exercise greater influence in the conduct of their - or other - governments. Moreover, it has blunted the technological edge enjoyed by the West. For the cost of a PC and an Internet connection, and with sufficient training in how to use both, it is possible to acquire a high level of knowledge and expertise on most any subject. Though some research now suggests that inequalities present in the real world may be replicating in the online world, it remains the case that the Web recognizes no elites, nor is it concerned with one’s previous academic qualifications. Users who find something above their level of comprehension will migrate to something simpler, and vice versa. In the end, all that matters is whether the information can furnish learning and action. Have we, as educators and mentors, taken advantage of these opportunities? Clearly much remains to be done.
  • While science has long since moved away from single author works and table top experiments, today’s graduate research in international relations and security still tends to be solitary in nature. With the exception of an occasional research symposium or conference presentation, interaction with one’s peers is typically kept to a minimum. Few of these ideas ever enter the public domain or are subject to public scrutiny. Unfortunately, 15 minute poster board presentations are as public as most graduate research proposals get. In the end, the validity of a graduate research program is only properly assessed by the professors charged with supervising it... Group work, while often accepted at the seminar level, is regularly considered to be a distant second best at the professional level, for a host of largely legacy reasons. Some possible solutions include: At the graduate program level, ensuring that all students are required to learn a foreign language, do at least one practicum with a potential employer and perhaps most importantly spend, as a matter of course, at least one summer working abroad. Ensuring that students engage in open learning environments, like Wikipedia, without risk of penality from their professors, environments which prove a rich resource for both amateurs and professionals looking to connect with and learn from one another. Moreover, these environments offer a form of cognitive apprenticeship where one’s ideas are tested and refined in an ongoing dialog with one’s peers. On the micro scale, but with potentially profound effects, encouraging the use of blogs, wikis and other collaborative tools should be a matter of course in academia.
  • Given today’s needs, we should aim for embracing new student mindsets without tossing out what is valuable in scholarly methods. This requires an openness to the new that most universities profess, but few actually put into practice. For the students, these individuals would be schooled beyond the confines of a single discipline; as well as their studies in IR, political science, strategic studies or history, for example, they would be given a thorough grounding in the major scientific, economic and technological developments that are shaping our world. The purpose here is to heighten global awareness and cultivate novel problems solving and a systems approach to today’s strategic challenges. Further, these students would strive to improve their cognitive skills needed to understand these challenges and fashion an effective response. Critical thinking, creativity and innovation, sound reasoning, the ability to take risks and manage complexity, a capacity for sensemaking and forecasting - all are essential to anticipating threats and maximizing national and organizational opportunities. Finally, the international affairs professional of the future would have the practical skills needed to prosper in today’s international workplace. They would have, for example, the communicative abilities of a journalist; the analytic acumen of an intelligence officer; the management nous of a corporate executive; and the information gathering prowess of a librarian. To get there, we should move our disciplines from an architecture of alienated knowledge to an architecture of interconnected knowledge and participation.
  • In 1989 Paul Saffo noted that the becoming information surfers, an idea first envisioned by Marshall McLuhan was something to strive for. If information is a wave about to engulf us, the solution is to become "information surfers,” he said -- individuals who thrive in a world of hyperabundant information. To wit, “We are in a pickle today because we are trying to manage 21st century information overload with 19th century intellectual skills.” As we have seen, today’s students are often early adopters of information “surfing” and networking tools, and without throwing out some semblance of the value of original ideas and creation, it should be possible for academics not only to tolerate but to embrace the new realities that make up today’s learningscape. Making use of blogs, wikis and other social and knowledge networking tools in teaching has become slightly more accepted, but it is far from commonplace despite wide acceptance by students and academics in certain fields. Why are we not training students to make better use of the tools they already use while helping them keep a critical eye on issues like privacy and control of information flows?
  • At this point in time I believe what is needed is a new “Grinter Report” drawing on the writing and opinions of leading statesmen, strategists, and security professionals and next generation students, aiming to elicit from them the knowledge and skills needed by today’s international affairs professionals. Outlining a training and education ontology that will benefit both graduate and undergraduate students, improve their value to employers, and enable the cultivation of radically new approaches to the strategic challenges of our day. Post 1945, and with the advent of the Cold War, educators and policymakers became aware of the need to cultivate new approaches to the education of America’s youth. The 1955 Grinter Report, for example, underlined the importance of incorporating scientific principles in education. The study committee, chaired by L. E. Grinter, was concerned that the rapid evolution of scientific knowledge was not being properly factored into America’s educational system. Many of the report’s conclusions were ignored until the launch of Sputnik, the shock of which brought about the realization that the proper cultivation of scientists and engineers was both a strategic imperative and, ultimately, a guarantor of national security. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has had more than its fair share of Sputnik moments. And yet, remarkably, the Grinter Report has never been revisited. Penned with a quarter century horizon, the report did not anticipate the digital revolution nor the arrival of powerful communications technologies that would, as we have seen, transform not just education but the course and conduct of international affairs. Neither has there been a comparable effort to map the training and educational needs of today’s international affairs students and professionals. This is despite the emergence of new geo-strategic realities and their related security challenges. For example, in my work with a Department of Energy study, we noted that “At the national level, decision-makers lack sufficient knowledge regarding how key energy and the environmental security relationships can affect regional and global stability” and that “Today’s strategic environment features security-related challenges that are global in scale and systemic in nature, and can best be assessed with a strategic intelligence capability that is similarly global and systemic.” We’ll need to band together to better prepare the today’s students for our collective challenges.
  • After their studies are complete, crucial learning must continue. Employer training is criticall to improving our grasp of complex problems. To wit, as we have seen, governments everywhere grapple with complex informational challenges. From economic crises to environmental security, government's ability to collect, manage, process, analyze, synthesize and communicate information determines its effectiveness. This ability depends on the quality of its workforce, which is contingent both on the education system and on government's commitment to prepare employees for operation in this dynamic information environment. Yet, precious little attention is given to researching or advocating information literacy skills for those in government service. I will now outline a literacy web comprised of eight crucial literacies, identifying strategies for its development and promotion, and suggest how these competencies help address today's interconnected concerns.
  • Why does information literacy matter? To begin, it is critical to ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of government employees and the institutions they serve. This is particularly important at a time of economic crisis, environmental challenges and shrinking development budgets.  Second, improved information literacy is vital to the openness and transparency that is increasingly expected of government agencies as it underscores a government's ability to communicate across agencies, through multiple channels and to different audiences, both foreign and domestic. Moreover, it emphasizes the importance of privacy, intellectual property, and the responsible handling of information.
  • Traditionally literacy has been understood as the "ability to read and write" or as "competence and knowledge in a specified area." But how do we define literacy in an age of abundant and constantly flowing information? And how do we define professional competence in an environment that embraces or evolves new disciplines and new knowledge?  Not to be confused with IT literacy, a separate discipline identified as "information literacy" should be advanced to better understand the information processing skills needed by government employees. The American Library Association defines i nformation 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."  Taking it a step further, the  United Kingdom's Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals defines information literacy as "knowing when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner." While these definitions are fine starting points, we contend that a much broader definition is required to understand the skills needed by today's government workforce.
  • So what are these literacies? Alphabetic literacy - This denotes the individual's ability to read and write. While definitions here have held fast for hundreds of years, the Internet has prompted interest in enhancing the workforce's ability to read and comprehend web-based materials, and to write for an increasingly digital and fluid audience.    Media literacy - The proliferation of news and information sources necessitates greater training on the part of government employees to work with and react to different types of media. For example, contrary to conventional wisdom, newspaper circulation is growing and new newspapers are being launched at a remarkable rate, new and revised data from the World Association of Newspapers shows. The total number of paid-for daily newspaper titles worldwide jumped over the 10,000 mark for the first time in history, to 10,104, a 13 percent growth from 2001, when there were 8,930 titles. Free daily newspaper circulation more than doubled from 2001 to 2005, from 12 million copies in 2001 to 28 million in 2005, an increase of 137 percent. On the growth of data as a whole, a study performed by International Data Corporation and sponsored by EMC offers detailed information regarding the fast increase of digital information. The research company uses a complex formula in order to calculate the total size of the "digital world," the overall amount of digital information that is produced and replicated on the globe. According to the company's researchers the total amount of digital information in 2007 reached 281 billion gigabytes or 281 exabytes. If divided, this information means that each person on earth provided 45GB of digital information. That is the first time that the overall size of digital content went beyond the total storage capacity. Yet, according to IDC, by 2011, only one half of the digital world will be stored. Format literacy - With information taking on multiple forms, government staff require greater knowledge of the many file formats that are proliferating on the web. To give but one example from the world’s most popular office software, currently there are more than twenty file formats natively supported in today’s Microsoft Office, not counting the dozens of file types one can open, save files as, or the hundreds of older file types that may still be imported with some margin of success.
  • Source literacy - That is the ability find, verify, and exploit both on- and offline information sources to uncover information that is critical to policy and decision-making. This includes an in-depth understanding of concerns such as: Authority (how to recognize when something is authoritative or accredited), the accuracy of what is being treated, the objectivity of the work (is this an advertisement? Or was it created as a public service?), the currency of the treatment (is it up to date?) and finally coverage (is this a work in progress or complete?) Search literacy - The rapid proliferation of information necessitates improved search skills on the part of government employees. Reliance on the most popular search engines can sometimes undaermine the search for policy-relevant information. We should know to avoid using one search tool exclusively and constantly experiment by looking for information on the same topic using different tools. Further, training should mean always reading the documentation that the search tools provide and checking it again periodically. Many times search tools change the way that their system functions without advertising it. Gaining an understanding of the syntax behind the search engine -- such knowledge makes Google searches, for example, much more powerful and relevant. Research literacy - The Internet is believed by many to be eroding traditional research skills, especially with regard to offline sources of information (e.g. government archives that have yet to be digitized). Renewed emphasis on these skills is crucial to government effectiveness.  Many students now mistakenly believe that because so much information is available in databases or on the Internet, they can do a very quick search and find the information they need right away. When these students begin searching and do not find any information on their topic, or when they find thousands of articles on their topic, they are disappointed to discover that finding the right information does take time.
  • Cultural literacy - Cultural literacy, or the ability to converse fluently in the idioms, allusions and informal content which creates and constitutes a dominant culture, is critical to identifying information from and about foreign cultures. It is also vital to ensure the effectiveness of a multi-cultural government workforce. As Ed Hirsch notes in his dictionary on the topic, “cultural literacy, unlike expert knowledge, is meant to be shared by everyone… it is that shifting body of information that our culture has found useful… it allows us to comprehend our daily newspapers, our peers and leaders, and even to share jokes. It is the foundation of our public discourse.” Visual literacy - Visual literacy is commonly understood as the ability to interpret, negotiate, challenge and evaluate the meaning contained within visual images. It also embraces the ability to visualize complex information to improve decision and policy making. Sandra Moriarty and Keith Kenney, who have created a taxonomy of visual literacy, suggest “ The study of visual communication is a multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional effort. People who write on this topic come from mass communication (including photography, advertising, and news editorial areas), film and cinema studies, education, art and aesthetics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, architecture and even archaeology.” Other fine efforts in this field include Ralph Lengler and Martin Epler’s Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. Indeed, with transparent government and data visualization in mind, President Obama appointed the acclaimed visualization expert Edward Tufte to help America see where the stimulus tax money is going.
  • Is it as this point in my presentation that I’d like to remind of us Mark Twain’s observation on the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. That said, I think we actually can do something about education and training. I think we need to work diligently to map the skills and literacies needed by the 21st century government workforce to address complex information-heavy concerns, drawing from a broad, interdisciplinary ecology of knowledge, including the fields of education, information science and librarianship, information technology, personnel development and others. In doing so, we hope to broaden governments' traditional frames of reference and marry the ideas and disciplines that can inform improved government service. In sum, we should identify the skills and competencies expected of government employees with regard to the literacy web outlined above. We should, as a matter of priority, * Identify strategies for developing the information literacy of government employees via workplace training, personal learning and / or other means.  * Identify areas of emerging or future concern with regard to information literacy and skills development in the government workforce * Identify the tools and technologies that can be used to improve the information literacy of the federal workforce I thank you for your time and look forward to your questions.
  • A Web of Literacies

    1. 1. A Web of Literacies: Improving the Business of Government Sean S. Costigan
    2. 2. State of play <ul><li>Globalization </li></ul><ul><li>Information and communications revolution </li></ul><ul><li>Disruptive ideas and technologies </li></ul><ul><li>Increased and unforeseen risks </li></ul><ul><li>Proliferation of existential security challenges </li></ul><ul><li>General acceleration of life </li></ul>
    3. 3. Watch this space <ul><li>Remaking of hierarchies </li></ul><ul><li>Democratization and rapid uptake of knowledge </li></ul><ul><li>Shrinking time horizons </li></ul><ul><li>Increasing information and overload </li></ul><ul><li>Growing disconnect between theories and reality </li></ul>
    4. 4. A changed picture <ul><li>A fundamental transformation in knowledge and learning has already occurred, but has “security education” changed? </li></ul>
    5. 5. Sources of opportunity <ul><li>Open Source Knowledge </li></ul><ul><li>Open Source Learning </li></ul>
    6. 6. Practicum makes perfect <ul><li>Teaching with practicums </li></ul><ul><li>Employing Case Studies </li></ul><ul><li>Requiring field work </li></ul><ul><li>Engaging in open learning environments </li></ul>
    7. 7. Targeted goals <ul><li>Fashioning “synthesists” </li></ul><ul><li>Forging new bridges among islands of inquiry </li></ul><ul><li>Moving from specialists of parts to generalists who are specialists of the whole. </li></ul>
    8. 8. Tuning the instruments <ul><li>Recognizing that many of the skills are already in place </li></ul><ul><li>Tuning the curriculum to meet the challenges </li></ul>
    9. 9. Sputnik Moments <ul><li>The need for a new Grinter Report, this time for security studies </li></ul>
    10. 10. Getting to work… <ul><li>Mandating and maintaining employer training </li></ul><ul><li>Improving information literacy </li></ul>
    11. 11. Why information literacy? <ul><li>Information literacy –moreover a web of literacies. </li></ul>
    12. 12. Defining the subject <ul><li>What is information literacy? </li></ul><ul><li>Fine starting points: </li></ul><ul><li>“ knowing when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner” [UK Chartered Institute] </li></ul><ul><li>&quot;recognizing when information is needed and having the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.&quot; [ALA] </li></ul><ul><li>Clearly, a broader definition is needed... </li></ul>
    13. 13. A Web of Literacies <ul><li>Alphanumeric literacy </li></ul><ul><li>Media literacy </li></ul><ul><li>Format literacy </li></ul>
    14. 14. A Web of Literacies <ul><li>Source literacy </li></ul><ul><li>Search literacy </li></ul><ul><li>Research literacy </li></ul>
    15. 15. A Web of Literacies <ul><li>Cultural literacy </li></ul><ul><li>Visual literacy </li></ul>
    16. 16. Furthering these goals <ul><li>As a matter of course we should identify </li></ul><ul><li>- strategies for developing the information literacy of government employees via workplace training, personal learning and / or other means.  </li></ul><ul><li>- areas of emerging or future concern with regard to information literacy and skills development in the government workforce </li></ul><ul><li>- the tools and technologies that can be used to improve the information literacy of the federal workforce </li></ul>