I-LEARN: A model for learning in the information age



One of the most important cognitive aspects of interactions with information is the act of learning itself. To be efficient and effective learners in the information age, individuals must be able to engage successfully with a wide variety of information types and formats. Living in a world in which information flows freely and defies the boundaries of traditional disciplines and subject areas, young learners in particular must develop strategies for engaging with ideas that transcend the curriculum and its usual topics and structures. The I-LEARN Model—Identify, Locate, Evaluate, Apply, Reflect, kNow—both describes the process of learning with information and provides a learning sequence that is teachable and possibly predictive of learners' information behavior. It is grounded in research and theory from information science, instructional systems design, and learning science and based on the author's own research and writing over more than a decade. A theoretical model that awaits validation, I-LEARN builds on the well-known tripartite information literacy paradigm—accessing, evaluating, and using information—to operationalize an inquiry approach to learning.

Theoretical Background

The I-LEARN model—Identify, Locate, Evaluate, Apply, Reflect, kNow—is a work in progress that is largely complete in its theoretical development but awaits verification in practice. It is grounded in the research and theory from information science, instructional systems design, and learning theory and draws on the author's own research and writing for more than a decade. It expands the well-known information literacy paradigm—accessing, evaluating, and using information—to focus specifically on the use of information as a tool for learning.

The model's closest ancestor is Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning (AASL & AECT, 1998)—the current national guidelines for the school library media field. These guidelines themselves are grounded in previous research, beginning with Doyle's (1992) early work to identify the components of information literacy, and assume the American Library Association's definition of information literacy:

To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information…. Ultimately, information literate people are those who have learned how to learn…. They are people prepared for lifelong learning because they can always find the information needed for any task or decision at hand. (ALA Presidential Committee Report, p. 1, quoted in Behrens, 1994, p. 315).

This definition is significant because it makes explicit the link between learning and information use. It suggests going beyond the general notion of information seeking— that is, accessing and evaluating information—to encompass the ultimate reason for students' information seeking—that is, learning. The key assumption underlying the model is that “developing expertise in accessing, evaluating, and using information is in fact the authentic learning that modern education seeks to promote” (AASL & AECT, 1998, p. 2).

Theoretically, the I-LEARN model draws upon conceptions of the nature of information presented both in the information science literature (principally Buckland, 1991; Dervin, 1983, 1992; Kuhlthau, 1985, 1988, 1993; Marchionini, 1995; Wilson, 1981, 1999) and in the literature of instructional design (principally Gagne, 1965, 1977, 1985; Hill & Hannafin, 2001; Mayer, 1999; Merrill, 1983, 1999). It combines and expands these understandings in a way that suggests that information is a dynamic phenomenon consisting of entities and relationships that can be mixed and matched according to their nature and to the uses to which they are put—including learning. I-LEARN is also grounded in the findings and assumptions of contemporary learning theory (principally Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Bransford, 2000), particularly constructivism.

Information Science

Buckland's (1991) typology blurs the traditional distinction between “information” and “knowledge” and posits that information is more dynamic than such a clear dichotomy suggests. According to Buckland, information can be conceptualized as a process (i.e., the communication act); as knowledge (i.e., an increase in understanding or a reduction in uncertainty); and as thing (i.e., an object that imparts information). Marchionini (1995) builds on Buckland's ideas to note that information “is anything that can change a person's knowledge” and that it “includes objects in the world, what is transferred from people or objects to a person's cognitive system, and … the components of internal knowledge in people's minds” (p. 5). Both authors, then, affirm the dynamism of information.

While Buckland and Marchionini address the nature of information, Wilson (1981, 1999) addresses the scope and nature of information-science research. Extending the concept of information seeking to include information behavior—that is, information seeking embedded in a context—his model broadens the field's purview to the study of what might be done with information after it has been found. The model's inclusion of a step labeled “information processing and use” invites information scientists—not just researchers in end users' disciplines—to investigate ways in which information is actually used. Clearly, “cognitive … aspects of interactions with information”—one of the themes of this conference—include the ways in which information is used in various contexts, including both formal and informal learning environments.

Dervin's (1983, 1992) emphasis on closing the “cognitive gap” to make sense of observed data led many information-seeking researchers to look to relevant cognitive issues, and Kuhlthau's (1985, 1988, 1997) work on the Information Search Process laid important groundwork for looking at information-seeking within particular learning environments. Reflecting the core ideas that information is neither static nor context-independent, both these authors provided early insights into the relationship of information seeking and learning. The I-LEARN model is infused with their contributions.

Instructional Design

The earliest instructional-design theorist to incorporate cognitive theory into the design of learning activities, Gagne (1965, 1977, 1985) is revered in the instructional-design world for linking the activities of instruction to the corresponding steps of cognitive information processing—for example, showing the relationship of activities designed for “stimulating recall” to the step of “coding/storage entry.” Over his long career, Gagne also linked information use to learning by proposing five “categories of learning” that correspond closely to different types of information use. From making simple stimulus-response connections between discrete pieces of information to employing various kinds of information to engage in highly complex learning, Gage provides the theoretical basis for instructional design theorists and practitioners to consider learning as a kind of “information behavior.” The fifth and highest category in his typology—“intellectual skills”—is in fact a summary of four learning behaviors that involve using information in various ways: making “discriminations” (i.e., differentiations), understanding “concepts,” applying “rules,” and engaging in “problem solving.”

Merrill (1983, 1999) also deals directly with the relationship of information and learning, proposing that information to be learned consists of four types and that learning involves three kinds of cognitive performance with those types. His “component display theory” is generally depicted as a matrix showing how the cognitive procedures of remembering, using, and finding interact with the facts, concepts, principles, and procedures that constitute information. While his ideas have been elaborated and extended over the years (notably by Reigeluth, 1999), the basic structure he devised of the ways in which cognitive processes interact with different kinds of information continues to provide solid grounding in instructional design theory for a discussion of information as a tool for learning.

Others, too, within the instructional design community have provided insights into the use of information for learning. Wiley's (2001) work on designing instruction based on “learning objects” continues the field's tradition of considering information as a basic component of learning. Mayer's (1999) model for designing instruction “for constructivist learning” is in fact a model for showing designers how to help learners “select, organize, and integrate” (p. 141) information in order to learn. Hannafin and Hill (2001) resurrect an earlier information-studies focus on “resource based learning”— helping students learn directly from library resources—and translate it into insights for learning with digital information.

Learning Theory

I-LEARN is grounded in the understanding of learning presented by Bransford et al. (2000) in the National Academy of Sciences summary of decades of learning research. Recognized as a key resource for understanding both historic and contemporary learning theories, this summary presents today's view of learning as an active, dynamic process that involves stages and levels. This constructivist stance meshes well with the dynamism of information as outlined by Buckland (1991) and Marchionini (1995) and strongly supports the use of information as a tool for learning. The I-LEARN model— which is itself a dynamic construct—is thoroughly consistent with this outlook.

Finally, I-LEARN incorporates the ideas outlined in Anderson and Krathwohl's (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This revision of one of the most important and widely used sets of ideas in education includes both a “cognitive process dimension” and a “knowledge dimension.” The “cognitive process dimension” describes a reconceptualized version of the six levels of learning delineated in the original Taxonomy, published in 1956: these are now identified as remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. The “knowledge dimension” is new; it delineates the four types of knowledge that underlie the six levels: factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive knowledge. The initial Taxonomy did not directly specify the types of information involved in learning. The inclusion of a “knowledge dimension” in its first revision in almost fifty years indicates the importance to contemporary educators of understanding that a spectrum of information types underlies the spectrum of learning.

From an information-science perspective, the types of knowledge can be seen as four types of information: facts, concepts, rules, procedures, and the knowledge and strategies that underlie metacognition. The 2001 Taxonomy posits that, to varying degrees, different types of knowledge are involved in different kinds of processing across the hierarchy of learning levels. This relationship is obviously flexible: both “factual knowledge” and “metacognitive knowledge” can support all six levels, for example, although each is more likely to come into play than others at various levels. (We remember facts, while we use metacognition when we integrate new information with prior knowledge to create new understandings.) The existence of this web of relationships reflects the connections across content, process, complexity, and dynamism that underlie conceptions of information held by the fields of both information science and instructional design.

Foundational Research

The research base for I-LEARN draws upon all the theoretical constructs noted above as reflected in almost two decades of research and writing by the model's creator (Neuman, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2003, 2004; Chung & Neuman, 2007). A consistent theme throughout these publications involves the ways in which information can be organized and presented to enhance students' opportunities for deep engagement with content that will enable them to construct higher-level knowledge. Ideas from many other researchers in addition to those mentioned earlier in this section—Bilal, 2000, 2001; Crane & Markowitz, 1994; Eisenberg & Small, 1995; Fidel et al., 1999; Kafai & Bates, 1997; Large et al., 1994, 1995, 1996; McGregor, 1994; and Pitts, 1994; to name a few— have also informed the development of the model.

The I-LEARN Model: Categories and Elements

The I-LEARN model includes six major activities that describe the overall process of learning with information. It also includes eighteen elements, three related to each category, that flesh out those major activities with suggested ways to implement them. It is anticipated that, in practice, the number of these elements might increase or decrease according to the needs of students and teachers and the demands of particular learning tasks.

For the purposes of efficient presentation, the model has been simplified and is presented in Table 1 in a linear fashion. In fact, any I-LEARN activity is by its nature iterative, offering possibilities for looping at each category and element. It is impossible to provide in a two-dimensional format a comprehensive picture of the ways in which any activity might be developed by teachers, library media specialists and other information professionals, and learners.

Table 1. The I-LEARN Model
IdentifyChoose a problem or question that can be addressed through information
ActivateA sense of curiosity about the world
ScanThe environment for a suitable topic within that world to investigate
FormulateA problem or question about that topic that can be addressed with information
LocateAccess information, either recorded or in the environment
FocusOn what is to be learned
IdentifyThe information needed for that learning
ExtractThe most relevant and salient information for that learning
EvaluateJudge the quality and relevance of the information found
AuthenticityCredibility of source and/or author; internal logic; accuracy
RelevanceTopic at hand, level of learning/depth required, appropriateness
TimelinessCurrency, accessibility
ApplyUse the information for a learning task
GenerateConstruct new understanding, personal meaning
OrganizeDetermine appropriate cognitive structure (e.g., chronological, hierarchical, etc.)
CommunicateCreate appropriate product to convey that structure
ReflectExamine product and process
AnalyzeAdequacy of both form and content
ReviseImprove as necessary
FinalizePolish as appropriate
kNowInstantiate knowledge gained
PersonalizeRecognize meaning as personal construct
InternalizeIntegrate with previous knowledge
ActivateDraw upon as necessary and/or appropriate

It is significant that the “I” in the initial category suggests several concepts in addition to “Identify”: the dependence on Information as the building block for learning is clearly implied, as is the personal responsibility for one's own learning assumed by constructivism: “I” create my own understanding of the world. Further, it is important to note that the “kNow” category ends with the element entitled “activate”—the same element that begins the learning process under “Identify.” The implication is that greater knowledge about the world is likely to stimulate even more curiosity about its nature, structures, and processes.

The model is clearly related to the three basic components of information literacy— access, evaluate, and use. “Access” is obviously related to “Locate,” although the model encompasses locating information inherent in the environment as well as accessing information in databases and other library resources. “Evaluate” is the same concept in the model as it is in the usual conception of information literacy. The model's chief contribution lies in its expansion of the dimension of “Use”: its three culminating categories greatly extend the information-literacy idea of “use” by tying it directly to “learning.” In typical models of information behavior, “use” is generally a vague term describing something beyond the information-seeking process itself. In the I-LEARN model, however, “use” is central: “Apply” describes the process of using information to generate knowledge—that is, to learn; “Reflect” is seen as a key factor in ensuring that learning is personally meaningful; and “kNow” describes how individuals employ and expand their knowledge once learning has been accomplished.

The model also links information behavior directly to learning—specifically, to the four types of knowledge and six levels of learning described in Anderson & Krathwohl (2001), as noted above. While the delineation of these relationships is tentative at this point in the model's development, early conceptions of the links are intriguing: “Locating” information involves finding factual and conceptual knowledge that will be the building blocks of learning; “Evaluating” information involves using metacognitive knowledge to judge the appropriateness of information; and “Applying,” “Reflecting,” and “kNowing” all involve both procedural and metacognitive knowledge. Even more intriguing is the relationship of the model to the taxonomy's levels of learning: “Locate” is clearly tied to the levels of remembering and understanding; “Evaluate” encompasses those levels and also suggests the levels of analyzing and evaluating; and “Applying,” “Reflecting,” and “kNowing” involve those four levels and add the final two—apply and create. Further work is necessary to establish (or reject) the relationships of the model to Anderson & Krathwohl's (2001) work, particularly in terms of their dynamism within the context of information seeking and use.


The I-LEARN model supports higher-level learning in the information age, both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, the model is grounded in contemporary notions of learning theory, instructional-design theory, and information theory and builds on these bases to suggest a new theory—a way to conceptualize learning in an age that requires learners to take personal responsibility for defining their own questions; accepting and (more often) rejecting information in order to answer those questions; and using that information in both critical and creative ways to engender personal, actualizable knowledge. Its emphasis on evaluating information and applying it in order to generate this new knowledge places its focus directly on the higher levels in Anderson and Krathwohl's (2001) revision of Bloom's Taxonomy.

In practical terms, I-LEARN provides a description of the process of learning with information, a strategy that can be taught and used to invoke that process successfully, and possibly a predictor of kinds and levels of learning. Although the model has not yet been validated in practice, its potential as a learning tool seems strong. By “operationalizing” learning with information in six categories and a few elements within each, the model not only offers a clear and succinct way to explain what happens when we use information as the basis for our learning but also suggests a straightforward process that teachers, library media specialists, and other information professionals can use to help students and other patrons master the task of learning in the information age.

Plans are currently underway to develop and test the model in school library media centers in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Experienced library media specialists will be involved in designing and implementing learning activities built on the model that can be integrated into ongoing instruction. These activities will involve students in Identifying authentic topics both within and beyond the curriculum, Locating information about them in a wide range of information sources, Evaluating the information to assess its utility, Applying the “best” information to develop a deep understanding of the topics and to solve related problems about them, Reflecting on their work, and summarizing their kNowledge gained as a result of their efforts.


The I-LEARN model bridges the fields of information science, instructional design, and learning theory by drawing on components of each to create a way to think about learning that responds directly to the actualities of a world brimming with information. While this blending of information seeking and learning has been in the literature for over a decade, the I-LEARN model is the first to combine them in a construct that is grounded in both theory and research and that has practical implications as well. Providing this bridge is the most significant contribution of the model.