Information Literacy as a Framework for the Digital Liberal Arts

Occidental College is a small residential liberal arts institution with approximately 2,000 students located just north of downtown Los Angeles. Over the past several years, Oxy’s Center for Digital Liberal Arts (CDLA) has used the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education to connect innovative digital project work with explicit learning goals. In its 2016 update, the ACRL expanded its definition to account for more active student roles:

Information literacy is the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning. (ACRL Framework 2016:8)

The Framework — with its 6 non-hierarchical frames, reference to “metaliteracies,”[1. According to Jacobson and Mackey’s Reframing Information Literacy as Metaliteracy (2011): “Metaliteracy is an overarching and self-referential framework that integrates emerging technologies and unifies multiple literacy types. This redefinition of information literacy expands the scope of generally understood information competencies and places a particular emphasis on producing and sharing information in participatory digital environments.”] and grounding in Wiggins and McTighe’s “Understanding by Design” (UBD) approach to curriculum development[2. Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe (2005) Understanding By Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Arlington, VA.] — has tied our work to an accepted tool for assessment and accreditation and provided us a way to better communicate the pedagogical value of digital project work. The Framework has thus become a means to structure project-based digital assignments in the undergraduate classroom, including: 1) collaboration among librarians, faculty and students in lesson design; 2) working “backward” from learning goals to assignment components; and 3) emphasizing the role of students as producers and distributors of knowledge in multiple modalities (e.g., visual, textual, archival, geospatial, data).

Digital Humanities (DH) Tools and Methods

Global Crossroads in the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs, Johnson Hall. Sept. 17, 2014. (Photo by Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer)

In this post we will outline and describe examples of our efforts to use and adapt several digital platforms, including Scalar[3. Although Scalar was originally optimized for advanced individual research publications, we re-purposed the tool for curricular settings, with up to 30 student authors in a single publication, or “book,” over the duration of a semester. The logistical challenges of project management and troubleshooting student user experience with the software in scaffolded incremental learning activities provided the basis for identifying conceptual obstacles that resonate with Wiggins and McTighe’s UBD.], a born-digital, open source, media-rich, publishing platform, and our own site-specific content management and digital display system, Global Crossroads, a media-resource sharing platform and associated two-story media wall installation in our global affairs center.

These platforms allow for students to create collaborative projects, or individual projects that build upon shared content sets, and display their work to audiences of peers in specific spaces on campus. They require students to consider authorship, attribution, metadata, and content creation in a context that combines traditional academic practices of citation with emergent practices of content sharing online. As we have applied these tools in the undergraduate classroom, the ACRL frames provided us with a language for identifying learning goals with faculty and a way to articulate the pedagogical value of working with new modes of information sharing.

From Reflective Discovery of Information to Strategic Exploration

The use of digital tools to surface information literacy issues and cultivate the knowledge practices and dispositions outlined in the Framework is exemplified by Jacob’s experience in teaching a first-year writing and research course entitled “Liberal Arts at the Brink,” in which he asked students to search online for data visualizations related to the rising costs of college education. As students imported their findings into projects displayed on the Global Crossroads media wall, they discovered, to their embarrassment, that many other students had chosen the same item. As it turned out, they had all typed “cost of college” into Google Images. The phrase they used was derived from the assignment prompt, which asked about the potential factors driving the increased costs. Upon reflection, some students were able to see that the visualization was not related to reasons for increased cost, but only about cost over time. Others began to ask how to cite sources when they noticed some listed The Guardian and many others simply “Google Images.”  Students faced obstacles in their understanding of standard practices of search and yet by displaying their search and citation choices on the media wall installation, they were able to see those limitations for themselves. Here the importance of the knowledge practices and dispositions of the frame Searching as Strategic Exploration was brought to the fore and could be fruitfully opened up for collective discussion.

Screenshot of Global Crossroads resource management tool with a data visualization and metadata

Student Example 1: Common data visualization based on Google Images keyword search.

Screenshot of Global Crossroads resource management tool with a data visualization and metadata

Example Student 2: Common data visualization based on Google Images keyword search.











This moment crystallized for us the potential of digital displays and content management systems for a new approach to teaching information literacy — one that was not about admonishing students. Instead, these tools could help students see their own agency in scholarly content creation, collection building, and accurate metadata entry. As we supported courses across the liberal arts curriculum, we sought multimodal (i.e. visual, graphic, geospatial) digital platforms to make the student research process visible. On-site screens provided more immediate communities than amorphous audiences “out there” as we once imagined in the early days of web 2.0 and student blogging, that is, viewers who were engaged in similar research questions, be they other courses, community-based research projects or networks of undergraduate digital humanities researchers.

From Understanding How Information is Produced and Valued to Scholarship as Conversation

In addition to their showcasing functions, Scalar and the Global Crossroads web application have the capacity to engage students with curated source media in small, thematic collections shared by all participants. Given the affordances of the technology, we adopted a curriculum-design strategy of “collections-based research,” or CBR[4. The seminal notion of a source “archive” of rich media content at the heart of Scalar’s design, as well as its recombinant features, is related to Marsha Kinder’s theory of “database narrative.” See e.g. her “Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever: Buñuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative,Film Quarterly Vol 55, Issue 4 Summer 2002.]. With our colleagues in the CDLA, we worked with faculty and students to create sets of content related to: an exhibition on “Black Arts at Oxy” in 1971; queer archives in Los Angeles; film and television representations of the author Cervantes; the Spanish/Nahua Florentine Codex; Russian avant-garde artist books. By constraining media content in shared sets, we replaced the more common curriculum design model based upon sequential topics and reading lists. The delimited conceptual and material terrain of a given project let students examine original cultural artifacts in depth, and left time for foundational scholarly practices traditionally associated with librarianship, such as sourcing, selection, juxtaposition, sequencing, metadata, and usage rights.

students at collaborative workstations and multiple instructors

Scalar workshop in the the library instruction classroom for HIST 355. (Photo by Samantha Alfrey, Arts and Humanities Specialist, CDLA)

Example of Scalar metadata fields for a resource from the Florentine Codex










These kinds of course-long projects led us to emphasize the ACRL frame “Information Creation as a Process” in the delivery of “digital scholarship labs” and library sessions, where students become contributors to knowledge, opening up possibilities for critique and analysis of what constitutes knowledge. In the case of HN Lukes’ and David Kim’s project The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture, students explored metadata in their course examination of what constitutes an “archive.” In collaborative projects with faculty, students began to utilize digital platforms like Scalar to represent histories that have been outside mainstream scholarship and to ask ethical questions about marginalized or vulnerable populations. In a course on the Spanish/Nahua Florentine Codex, taught by History Professor Lisa Sousa, and supported by our CDLA colleagues Samantha Alfrey (Arts and Humanities Specialist) and Yovanna Cifuentes-Goodbody (Language Education Specialist), Samantha Alfrey led a remarkable discussion about metadata and students used the entire duration of a lab period to interrogate whose voices and interests should be represented in the names and other information typed into metadata fields, requiring them to think through and make decisions about how to categorize knowledge and content when those are contested spaces due to colonial oppression of indigenous cultures. This became an empowering and liberatory process for students and a key space for opening up discussions about representation, criticality, and visibility that resonated with the aims of digital humanities and information literacy.

From Participating Ethically in Communities of Learning to Information Creation as Process

We also continue to advocate for and develop digital platforms that create new and intentional spaces for scholarly conversation among students, faculty and the communities they study. In partnership with Oxy’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA), the Library’s Special Collections, Oxy Arts, and the Center for Community-Based Learning, we worked with students in Professor Jeremiah Axelrod’s first-year seminar course to collect stories from local community members who helped shape the cultural landscape in Northeast Los Angeles over the past 70 years. Students learned disciplinary specific practices related to oral history, including the importance of reciprocity with community partners. Student involvement in this sort of research introduces them to the practice of ethical participation in communities of learning, a key component of the Framework’s definition of information literacy.

Person with headphones using a touch screen in a white gallery space

Gallery goer interacts with oral histories inside Scalar on mounted iPad. (Photo from NELA Compass Rose Exhibit Scalar Book).

With its multimedia affordances, Scalar served as an appropriate way to aggregate  audio recordings and transcripts, which were displayed on wall-mounted iPads as part of the inaugural exhibit of the Oxy Arts gallery.

By using Scalar with the Internet Archive, this project also introduced students to the interaction between information platforms and helped them gain an appreciation for their respective value. Audio recordings made by students were uploaded to the Internet Archive along with detailed metadata, and then these audio files were embedded in the Scalar exhibit. Because of the intended public audience for Scalar, the metadata for the embedded media was intentionally suppressed so that gallery visitors would not be overwhelmed. This sort of process of working in multiple platforms helps develop the disposition “that different methods of information dissemination with different purposes are available for their use,” another aspect of the frame “Information Creation as a Process.”


Digital Humanities are often viewed as the domain of researchers with advanced technical proficiency and may seem too daunting or, worse, irrelevant for undergraduate course activities. In our experience, however, these sorts of projects can be extraordinarily fruitful ways to teach information literacy when careful attention is paid to assignment scaffolding and learning objectives are tied to information literacy frames. Bringing the Framework to bear on the projects significantly lowers the threshold for faculty buy-in and willingness to expand their repertoire of pedagogical tools.


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About the Authors

Craig Dietrich is Research Fellow, Occidental College Center for Digital Liberal Arts. Craig’s online work includes Tenants in Action (TIA), an app that facilitates slum-housing reports to LA city agencies; the Mukurtu Archive and Plateau People’s Web Portal, for which he was the first lead developer; Scalar, which he co-created with the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC); and Tensor, an iTunes-like app for managing content from cultural archives. His offline production includes Walking Wall Street, a project that has seen Dietrich find Wall Streets in towns and cities across America; and Occupy Roundtable, which he hosted in various Los Angeles lecture-halls.

Christopher Gilman is Digital Humanities Professor of Practice, Occidental College. Christopher holds a PhD in Slavic languages and literatures and a BA in Russian studies. As Associate Director for the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Occidental College he led design and development efforts scholarly technologies and learning spaces, including the Global Crossroads media display and web application, Varelas Innovation Lab, “Screen Two,” and the CommonPlace Screen. His interest in emerging scholarly tools and practices both in K-12 and post-secondary education began as the Associate Director at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California, and as Media Arts Consultant with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Arts Education Branch.

Darren Hall is Academic Technology Specialist in the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Occidental College. He consults with faculty on assignment design for course-based digital humanities projects and frequently leads class workshops for students in those courses.

Jacob Alden Sargent is Associate Director for Instruction and Research in the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Occidental College and affiliated faculty in the Cultural Studies Program. Jacob earned his BA in Music and Sociology from Bates College and his PhD in Sociology from the University of Virginia where he published articles on labor and technology in knowledge and culture industries. He brings a background in sociology and faculty development to Oxy where he manages instructional and co-curricular programs for information literacy in the context of institutional transformation. He most recently taught courses on the history of liberal arts education, where students did hands on research in the college archives, and on gender identities, where students critically examined what it means to quantify human identities and behaviors.