In this interview, Mary Kalantzis and William Cope are talking with us about information literacy, the underlying concept, strategies and problems as well as the use of artificial intelligence in this field. Together they have had a presentation about »Artificial intelligence and its application in information and media literacy education« at our online conference on Information Literacy and Democracy in June 2020. The interview was conducted by Johanna Zellmer and Lukas Sontheimer in connection with this conference.

Mary Kalantzis and William Cope from the University of Illinois, USA, work and research on multilingualism, literacy, multiliteracy, new media and learning. The term literacy refers to a broad understanding of literacy that begins with alphabetization and extends to the ability to understand and write texts. Cope and Kalantzis extended the concept of literacy by including aspects of multimodality and multilingualism. By doing so, their understanding of literacy became more digital and global. The focus is on the idea of creating a contemporary learning environment which  concentrates on the social benefits that result from new technologies. Cope and Kalantzis argue that virtual learning spaces can be used to make schools more pleasant for learners, more contemporary and closer to the realities of learners’ lives. In their presentation, they referred in particular to the field of artificial intelligence and its use for teaching media and information literacy.

For this interview, the answers of the interviewed persons were summarized in a reader-friendly version with the content remaining unchanged.

What does information literacy mean to you?

William Cope: Information literacy is getting the truth of facts. When we say things are fact- free or if there are lots of arguments about things being facts then the problem is that facts are never straightforward. One of the problems with the idea of facts is that they are always sitting in an interpretable framework – that is a critical part of information literacy, if you like. Furthermore, it’s not only about the factuality of information, it’s about the validity of whole interpretable frameworks in a world where these things are incredibly contested.

Mary Kalantzis: The definition of information literacy is being able to discern and recognize connections and ideologies that might be behind certain kinds of information. So, the literacy part is how you process information that comes to you. And as educators, we need to prepare learners to look at the kinds of structure and context in which information arrives to us. And interpreting it not only at face value but in deeper ways.

Why are you interested in the topics of information literacy, artificial intelligence and democracy? What is your perspective and your role as researchers?

Mary Kalantzis: For all educators, it is very difficult at the moment and the concept of democracy is a very contested idea right now. And for us, we think about how we can harness digital tools to help navigate the multiplicity of opinions, the multiplicity of facts and the multiplicity of disciplines. So, we thought about how we can use artificial intelligence At the moment, artificial intelligence is mainly being used to troll information about our view, our perspective, what we are and what we do in order to manipulate us and sell us things. So, we thought about how do we harness the possibilities of AI to be able to understand different factors like progress and how it matters to engage. In our scholar program, we saw that assessment is really critical because it drives the curriculum. So, we assess knowledge with all it does, but we also assess engagement. The degree to which you engage and the degree to which you help each other. So, we actually put weight on collaboration and helping and on engagement. We use AI to track data because otherwise there is no other way of saying you need to engage in this space. It must be a social collaborative space; it must be a human space. It’s an irony that we use AI to ensure that we have a human connection in its diversity which is the other point. So, no student can progress unless they help another student. And we build that into the logic. So, we see the potential for AI and the affordances of the digital of creating in ecologies of learning which are robust and critical and point towards our sociality rather than individualism and competitiveness. 

William Cope: One of the things that we argue with AI is that you can use it for all sorts of ends – positives as well as negatives. There are no intrinsic politics in the AI world. The whole point is how can we use these tools to enhance the learning of students and how can it be used for these other purposes and how can we harness them. But there is a bigger picture about the very nature of AI which explains why it’s not intrinsically political. So, for example in the last US election one of the very powerful things the Trump campaign did, was that they had Facebook involved and they had very detailed targeted advertising based on Facebook data. But it wasn’t just the data that actually allowed them to target people so successfully, it was actually what we call the ontologies in which you frankly classify things. One of these classifications was a personality profile. Here, the power is not in the calculation of the algorithm, it’s in the person’s profile. The power of Facebook data is not the algorithms that capture your data but the model of the world that is meaningful – and this is called ontology. So, the key of AI is not the algorithm, it’s the ontology. That’s our kind of motto. So, the ontology you put to the data are politics which means it’s our responsibility to educate us to put our form of politics into learning spaces.

Which central problems and approaches to solutions as well as trends do you see in the field of information literacy?

Mary Kalantzis: Every place is different, so the context is different. Information literacy is something much broader now than when we first started using that term, thinking it was just about media. In fact, it’s about pleasure, it’s about relationship, a whole range of things because it goes back to the affordances of the digital. These come into all our spaces from health to pleasure to education. So, we are getting that called ‘information’ across a whole spectrum that wasn’t available to us before in a device that we carry in our pocket or something that sits on our living room table. I think our education hasn’t yet understood the reality of that. Information literacy is something that belongs to the subject media or the subject communication. We like to suggest that we need to open it up to a broader understanding.

William Cope: Information literacy is in the context of the history of media, so digital media. So, the question is what the affordances of these media are, what do they do and what scope do they give you for meaning. The question for the moment is around this concept of AI, there is a lot of fear or excessive enthusiasm. The business of this kind, of difficult phrase, of explaining what it means, how it works and what it does, is now a very important part of what you call information literacy.

Do you see information literacy as a prerequisite for the use of AI? 

William Cope: Yes, it’s now integral to it. But it’s not a presetting question or a following question, it’s just an integral part of what we do. And again, the problem is how you define it. So, what’s happening now in our conversation is in a broad definition underpinned by things that would not have been possible until digitalization of these media. But in a narrow definition the AI is the machine learning from our interactions which may be happening but in a limited kind of way here. So, we actually need to find what these things mean in order to debunk either the over-enthusiasm or the kind of paranoid fears.

Mary Kalantzis: And if you control what happens in school – if you control the textbooks, if you control the media – you control the story line. But the affordances of the digital right now allow us to counter it with that information that we need to see to make decisions into the future. I don’t know if that’s clear, but information literacy has profound, absolutely profound consequences for the notions of democracy and how it’s formed.

Which three tips do you have for handling information?

William Cope: We have this little theory where with anything that you face you ask five questions:

First question is “What’s it about?” which is reference. 

Second question is “Who are the actors?” which is agency. 

Third question is “How is this particular thing structured?”. How does it work internally? So that is a structure question. 

The fourth question is “What’s the context?”. The meaning is not a media object, it’s in the context of its creation and distribution and reception. 

And the fifth question which is the most important question of all in a way or the underlying question is “Whose interest does it serve?”.

Note: This framework above is further described in this article from William Cope and Mary Kalantzis where the given illustration originates from:

What did you hope to get out of this conference? With what expectation did you come here?

Mary Kalantzis: The purpose of the conference is a really important one and the fact that you are bringing together people from other parts of the world to talk about what we as educators need to do and understand in preparing learners to be agents, citizens, learners and workers of the future. This is an opportunity to learn from others in a field that is dramatically changing. 

William Cope: I agree. A few issues are just profoundly more important. The word that we use for our five questions is parsing. So, with parsing in its origins we would slice and dice a sentence in lot of ways (into verbs, nouns, subjects for example) which is the thing about meaning. Well, we need to do that with the world, we need to parse the world and we need tools to be able to do that.Mary Kalantzis: Especially if you look where we are right now. Right now, the economy has been put on the back burner as we try to solve a pandemic. And we have a pandemic in sociality, we have a pandemic in terms of the environment, and we have a pandemic in terms of health. So, we have to be able to understand the world in a broader way than just the economy. That’s why participation and our reception of it is a critical part of it.

We thank William Cope and Mary Kalantzis for this interview!