Archive for the ‘information literacy’ Tag

The ‘F’ word: information literacy, ‘find’ and other verbs

Another short piece written for the UKSG Newsletter back in September. Thanks to editor Andrew Barker for letting me reproduce it here (and in a downloadable form over here), and for being brave enough to indulge my long-cherished desire to write about ‘the F-word’ : )

Autumn! Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of Welcome Week and freshers’ flu, of hoarseness and voice loss from back-to-back induction sessions. The opportunity to welcome a new group of learners into the academic community and let them loose on knowledge ought to be joyful and exciting – but somehow the joy gets lost in the pressure to condense Everything You Need to Know About The Library into a single front-loaded session, usually in a lecture theatre, and sometimes into a five-minute ‘introductory’ slot that may be the only timetabled contact you have with a new cohort of students.

Every new academic year I struggle with the ever-present temptation to just focus on the basics, which in a five-minute ‘library slot’ means how to find your stuff. My struggles centre around the verb: as a passionate proponent of what Cottrell and Cohen call “real deal information literacy” (2012), I have issues with the fact that ‘find’ often comes across as the primary verb for what you do with information in an academic context.

It’s fairly frequently noted that in our disintermediated information world finding things is easy: it’s exercising critical evaluation of such a volume of material from such a range of sources that’s hard. In this regard it’s interesting that while classic models of information literacy such as SCONUL, ANZIIL and the original ACRL standards all include the concept of ‘find’ (sometimes as ‘access’ or ‘gather’) as a key action, it’s a verb that scarcely appears in the eight pages of the ANCIL curriculum. Instead, ANCIL uses verbs like ‘distinguish’, ‘critique’, ‘identify’, and ‘reflect’ to model the learner’s relationship with information – all of which involve doing something to, or with, the information found.

In the library world, where much of our focus is naturally on systems for organising and locating information, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that the learner’s interaction with information is a kind of quest narrative that centres on seeking and culminates when the desired material is found. This is a seductive construction of academic information practice, placing the library and its search tools at the heart of scholarly creativity and incidentally ensuring that our role as gatekeeper retains its hieratic status. Again, this perception of information enshrines ‘find’ as the primary information activity: as Spiranec & Zorica have commented, “within IL standards information is usually treated as an object to be located and used by the individual” (2012).

But if the only message we have the chance to communicate to our students is that their relationship with information centres on finding information objects, we’re doing them a major disservice. At some point we need to make clear to learners in higher education that what really matters is what you do with the information once you’ve found it. Too much focus on ‘find’ implicitly communicates to students that their encounter with information is simply a matter of tracking down published artefacts, when in fact that encounter is about “Making meaning within unfamiliar discourse” (Wingate, 2006).

What it comes down to is that in library sessions we have a choice in how we present the concept of information. We can describe a book or a journal article as an artefact, a published and describable entity: you look for it, you find it, you’re done. Or we can describe information in terms of its contribution to knowledge, as a point of view expressed and negotiated within the academic discourse: you find it, you read it, you start answering back to it. The academic community’s relationship with information is not to absorb without question – it’s entirely the opposite. The whole purpose of HE is to develop in students a critical mindset: the weighing, sifting, questioning approach that isn’t cowed by expertise or silenced by authority.

Yet given the active, constructive, negotiated nature of this relationship with information, isn’t it interesting that our ‘induction’ weeks in general chiefly consist of telling our students things? Paradoxically, this first week of student life in higher education has very little to do with being introduced to the values and practices of the academic community, with a view to enabling each individual to negotiate and express an identity within that community. In fact, ‘induction’ is possibly the worst label there could be for an introductory experience that chiefly consists of directional wayfinding and basic know-how – finding the lecture theatre, managing to remember your username and password, learning where to get cheap pizza. This preliminary orientation phase isn’t really designed to foreground advanced intellectual content or knowledge construction: it’s about finding and finding out. Thus it deals chiefly with declarative rather than procedural knowledge – knowing what, rather than knowing how (Ambrose et al., 2010, 18).

Now it’s clearer why focusing on ‘find’ is such an overwhelming temptation in Welcome Week: it makes a good fit with the rest of what’s happening. ‘Find’ sits very well within a basic orientation-and-wayfinding phase; after all, there’s not much you can evaluate, construct or negotiate about either where the lecture theatre is or what you do to look up a book on your reading list. Finding information, in fact, bears the same surface and preliminary relationship to the information encounter that finding the lecture theatre does to attending (and attending to) a lecture. Therefore at some point we need to find a way to clearly signal to students that a shift from ‘find’ to ‘use’ will be necessary in order to engage with academic practices and succeed in their studies.

To do this we need to move away from telling, because although all these things that we tell our students are useful and good to know, in the act of telling itself we construct and subtly impose a transmissive model of learning in which we possess expertise that students must acquire. At some point we ourselves need to model a different relationship both with information and with our learners, to recognise that each is taking part in a fluid and negotiated process of knowledge construction. In short, we need to let them know the information experience doesn’t end with ‘find’: that find is where it starts.

As librarians, I believe we can still do more to reframe our thinking away from our search products and from the perception of information as artefact, and more towards alignment with the academic practices of the community we work with and in. Rather than merely demonstrating resources, we need to be able to articulate how use of those resources might support the academic journey as an ongoing process of making sense, constructing meaning, creating conceptual relationships and even negotiating one’s own identity within a community of practice.

The advent of discovery systems has given us a game-changing opportunity to model this realignment in how we talk to students about information. When you can introduce your library’s search tool in under five minutes you have the chance to reclaim interface demonstration time and use it to talk instead about the conventions and values of academic information communication (see e.g. Coonan, 2014). So I’m hoping that even if I spend only one of those five minutes flagging up the shift from finding to using, from transmitting to constructing, from telling to questioning, that I’ll still have managed to help students perceive a different relationship with information and with what it means to ‘be academic.’

Only once the introductions are over does the real practice start; and only when the practice starts does the induction to the community begin. And it’s at this point in the student’s journey that ‘real deal’ information literacy – the making of meaning – replaces ‘find’; and at this point, if we have the chance, that we can stop simply telling our students things and invite them to start constructing meaning for themselves.

 

References

ACRL (2000) Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/standards/standards.pdf. (This document is now superseded by a threshold concepts approach: see http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Framework-for-IL-for-HE-Draft-2.pdf)

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, Calif.: Wiley.

Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework [ANZIIL], 2nd ed. (2004). http://archive.caul.edu.au/info-literacy/InfoLiteracyFramework.pdf

Coonan, E., ed. (2014) Teaching, not telling: proceedings of the 2nd Information Literacy and Summon Day. http://www.proquest.com/blog/2014/Teaching-not-Telling.html

Cottrell, Janet & Cohen, Sarah Faye (2012) Real deal information literacy: designing and implementing meaningful instruction and assessment. http://www.slideshare.net/infolit_group/cottrell-cohen

SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: core model for Higher Education (2011) http://www.sconul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/coremodel.pdf

Secker, J., & Coonan, E. (2011) A new curriculum for information literacy [ANCIL]. http://newcurriculum.wordpress.com/using-ancil/

Špiranec, S. & Banek Zorica, M. (2012) ‘Changing anatomies of information literacy at the postgraduate level: refinements of models and shifts in assessment’. Nordic Journal of Information Literacy in Higher Education 4

Wenger-Trayner, E. (n.d.) ‘Communities of practice: a brief introduction’. http://wenger-trayner.com/theory/

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469. http://embeddingskills.hud.ac.uk/sites/embeddingskills.hud.ac.uk/files/Wingate.pdf

[All URLs accessed 30 September 2014]

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“My dolly’s bigger than your dolly”, or, Why our labels no longer matter

Here’s an expanded write-up of my part of the presentation on ANCIL at the recent Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education conference, one of whose key themes was ‘Who owns learning development?’. In response to this theme Jane, Maria and I talked about moving from theory to practice in the development of a shared academic skills curriculum that embraces information literacy, digital literacies, learning development and graduate identites. They spoke about the practical work they’re doing at LSE; I got to play with the concepts!

When Jane and I carried out the ANCIL research in 2011 one of the first things we did was to map out the landscape of information literacy and how we saw it overlapping with related areas.

 

InformationliteracyVenn

Our representation situates information literacy as the central concept, overlapping with areas of specific information application (new learning literacies), practices involving a specific type of information (digital literacies), and information in use in a particular context or community (academic and media literacies). The graphic was designed to show that we perceive information literacy as interwoven with all these areas – but it also suggests visually that information literacy is a grand narrative: the overarching, ‘master’ concept that relates and makes meaningful all the others.

It’s fair to say that both Jane and I perceived this landscape through the lens of information literacy, as that’s the conceptual matrix in which our approach developed. However, we soon began to see an equal degree of complexity in other areas, in particular recognising the strength of the claim that learning development constitutes a legitimate, epistemologically autonomous, and empirically grounded field of inquiry (see this wonderful article by Lillis and Scott). In other words, learning development could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including digital and information literacies.

Similarly, digital literacy has gained a good deal of both recognition and traction in the UK higher education arena, where information literacy has notably failed to gain either. As a result, what Jane and I refer to as ‘information literacy’ is now often seen as being subsumed within the larger concept of ‘digital literacy’, in direct contrast to the ANCIL perception imaged above. In other words, digital literacy could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including academic and information literacies.

Is this a deadlock, a stand-off? Not at all. Enter the wonderful matryoshka metaphor conceived by Florence Dujardin

RussianDolls_LachlanFearnley_ccbysa30

Hello, Dolly!

Mulling over the relationship between information and digital literacy at an SRHE event, Florence said (as nearly as I can remember): “In HE we’re always trying to put one concept inside another so that we can see our preferred one as the biggest idea. It’s like Russian dolls … and everyone’s dolls stack up differently.”

Over the past decade or so, in each of the areas of learning development, information literacy, and digital literacy there has been a radical shift in thinking away from a simplistic, functional and normative approach and towards recognising and honouring the complexity of learning outside the curriculum and the agency of those doing the learning. So here’s a thought: maybe we’re at the point now that it doesn’t actually matter which doll is the biggest, the outward, most visible one. Because of the way our thinking in all these areas has developed, maybe we’ve reached a point where although we’re coming from different specialties and start points, we’re all converging on the same goal: to provide opportunities for our students to construct and sensemake the academic landscape for themselves.

Jane’s and my attempt to map the place of information literacy was the start of a growing recognition on our part of how nuanced each of these specialist areas is, how shifting and negotiated this academic information landscape is, and likewise how fluid are our own practitioner identities as ‘belonging’ to one or more of these areas. As a teaching librarian, I move across and between the arenas of academic literacies, critical information use, digital literacy and graduate identity. I can’t separate them, even if I thought there were any mileage in trying. And I can situate my practice and my professional identity as comfortably in the context and discourse of Beetham and Sharpe’s digital literacy framework, Hinchliffe and Jolly’s VIPER model of graduate identity and employability, or Lillis and Scott’s epistemology of academic literacies, as I can within Bruce’s six frames of information literacy. It’s not that I ‘wear different hats’ in each different sphere: I do the same thing in the same relationship with students, aiming always at the same goal – to help them to realise a critical and reflective relationship with the information that shapes, filters and mediates our lived experience.

 

Image by Lachlan Fearney, CC BY-SA 3.0

The academic support iceberg

I’ve just had one of those meetings – the kind that make you feel all zingy and creative and as bouncy as a puppy in a ball-pit. It was a conversation between librarians and learning developers, and there are few things more inspiring or full of possibility …

A lot of our discussion was about the ‘big picture’ of what both professions do in terms of academic support, and what it might look like to students. During our talk my colleague Sarah came up with a wonderful metaphor: there are three ‘prongs’ of academic development support – provided by lecturer, learning enhancement staff, and librarians. It’s an alliterative educational trident!

Then I started thinking about how visible each of those prongs is to learners, since mainstream subject content is often perceived as providing all the potential for academic development needed by students. As a (fairly vocal) proponent of both reflective information literacy and learning development, it’s probably no surprise that I feel that subject content needs to be interrogated, negotiated and contextualised in order for deep learning to be achieved. And so I give you … the academic support iceberg!

info_iceberg_image

Above the surface, the academic development environment most visible to students – that available within their discipline, through their interaction with their subject. Below the surface, the rich opportunities offered by stepping back to look at ‘how you do what you do’ and reflecting on how to manage your own learning, with support from specialists in information and education.

 

info_iceberg_bulleted

There are consonances here with ‘real’ conceptual models such as ANCIL and Beetham and Sharpe’s Digital Literacy framework, which express information and digital literacies as a continuum rather than a simplistic single skill, and with current thinking about learning development as a complex of situated social practices. But although the iceberg is a metaphor schema rather than a model, I still like it rather a lot – not least because it’s reminiscent of other surface/depth schemata such as Alke Groppel-Wegener’s wonderful ‘Fish-scale of academicness‘:

Fishscale of Academicness

There’s more about Alke’s Fishscale schema in this post, too. I wonder if there’s room for a trident in there next to the treasure chest … ?

Conceptualising our practice: the library service spectrum (and who gets to decide where you stand on it)

Here’s a short piece I wrote for the UKSG Newsletter recently, reproduced here with permission. There’s a downloadable version over here if you prefer. At a recent ARLG event on ‘Librarians as Teachers’ I invited the audience to consider the idea of a spectrum or continuum of library service provision. At one extreme end of this continuum is a vision that revolves around the provision of quality materials; at the other, a focus on supporting learning and knowledge creation. These poles could be described in terms of an orientation towards collection development and learning development respectively; more loosely, they can be seen as a focus on ‘stuff’ on one hand, and on ‘the people who use the stuff’ on the other. uksg_graphic_cropped These positions are deliberately represented as the extreme ends of a continuum or axis rather than as an either/or dichotomy, because most library staff will find themselves falling somewhere along the line between the two rather than wholly at one end. It’s an interesting, and revealing, activity to reflect on how much of what we do in our daily work lies towards each end of the continuum.  For instance, at the material-facing pole will fall ‘traditional’ library processes like selection, organisation, acquisition, description and circulation – and indeed also promotion of the selected material; at the learner-facing pole we would find activities like facilitation, scaffolding, reflective dialogue and collaborative question-framing, as well as some formal teaching interventions. As suggested above, the work of many library staff will include elements of both types of provision: the interesting thing is to consider the proportion or ratio between them, and where this places you on the scale. uksg_graphic The first question, then, is: Where do you stand on this spectrum? How much of your professional time is spent organising knowledge that’s already out there – published material, scholarly communications, information artefacts – and how much in supporting and developing what’s going on in the crucible of the mind, where knowledge is still taking shape? This is a particularly interesting question for teaching librarians. Few would dispute that libraries, and in particular academic libraries, have a part to play in helping students develop their higher-level information handling abilities. These abilities include critical thinking and evaluation, interrogating and synthesising variant points of view, and developing an informed and reflective approach to encountering information – what Neil Postman called “the art of crap-detection” (1969). The issue lies in how we approach this remit of scaffolding students’ critical and academic development. Should we seek to fulfil this role by ensuring that the library offers reliable, authoritative material of academic quality, selected by subject experts to be useful and relevant? Or should we aim to support students in learning to select material themselves for its use and relevancy to the particular task at hand? Champions of the former standpoint are likely to see their role in terms of weaning students away from uncritical Googling and towards a thoughtful use of scholarly information sources. Advocates of the latter, on the other hand, will probably endorse William Badke’s assertion that “An information literacy approach … might not even in every case take the student to a library” (2010). Our own beliefs and values along this axis will influence how we perceive the relationship between the library and information. Thus a materials-focused approach is likely to conceive of the library as being the gateway to all appropriate information. In this relationship ‘library’ is the dominant concept and contains the concept of ‘information’, towards which it acts as a gateway or quality filter. lib_vs_info In contrast, an approach that aims to support students in developing the ability to evaluate information for themselves is likely to conceive of this relationship the other way around, with the library forming part of a much larger information landscape with which our students engage. info_vs_lib Sarah Cohen draws a sharp distinction between these two approaches, arguing that the former revolves around instruction in library resources, whereas “information-centric instruction” takes in the whole information landscape including, but not limited to, the library. Regrettably for theoretical precision, the term ‘information literacy’ is so elastic that it can – and does – accommodate both approaches: however, mapping them to the material-learner spectrum enables us to see how divergent they really are. Where information literacy instruction deals exclusively with promoting and demonstrating library resources, it falls very close to the ‘materials’ end of the spectrum, despite the fact that, as a teaching intervention, the vehicle of delivery appears to be learner-focused.  At the opposite pole, teaching will concentrate not on resources or products but on processes involved in learning – sense-making, question-framing, synthesis and knowledge construction. Why does this matter? It matters because where we stand on the spectrum has significant implications for how we construct our idea of the library and its mission, purpose and value in the lives of our learners. This in turn will determine how we present the library to our students and affect how they perceive what we can offer to support them in their learning journey. Yet this is nothing like the whole story. Beyond the interest, or the reflective impact, of determining your own standpoint on the provision continuum lies a far bigger question:

Where does your library stand on this spectrum?

What proportion of overall staff time is spent on materials-facing work relative to learning-facing provision? Which kind of workflow is better established and supported in the organisation’s culture? How many sections or departments on the organisational chart are named after materials-facing processes, and how many after teaching and learning activities? (I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that ‘Reader Services’ in many libraries actually falls towards the materials-facing end of the spectrum, since it often focuses on what readers do in the library building and with the library’s collections – i.e., the stuff.) Yet beyond where your library stands on the spectrum is a wider context again: that of the student’s encounters with the whole institution, from application through admission to assessment and finally (we hope) into employability. All our interactions with learners – whether formal teaching interventions or ad hoc one-to-ones at the inquiry desk – take place within this wider institutional framework; and this framework has always already influenced our students’ learning experiences by way of prior encounters or touchpoints and the values that are perceived to underlie them. So the final question to consider is:

Where does your institution think that your library, and you, should stand on this scale?

Because ultimately, that factor is likely to be the greatest determinant of how our students perceive the role, mission, and value of the library. Time to start working on that elevator pitch for the Vice-Chancellor?

The research jigsaw

I’ve been mulling a lot recently over how to describe what it is I teach, why information literacy isn’t the same thing as learning to use the library, and above all why it can’t be covered in an hour at the start of term. I’ve been using the concept of the ‘information landscape’ to give an idea of the scale and complexity of the information-handling abilities needed by researchers.  This idea extends neatly into a broader metaphor schema where the subject knowledge is the landscape, while information literacy is the set of navigational and survival tools you bring with you into that terrain – the map, the compass, the energy bars, the binoculars.

I like the landscape metaphor a lot, particularly because it lets me talk about research as exploration and discovery, which is an aspect I sometimes feel we don’t stress enough. It also maps nicely to ANCIL’s ten strands, which express the idea that information literacy isn’t a homogeneous, one-shot entity but a complex (and contextual) array of practices and values around using information. However, when talking to course leaders recently about the set of modular classes i’m designing for their students, I found myself thinking of UWE’s iSkillZone, which uses a colourful, clickable jigsaw image on its front page. Jigsaw pieces are discrete units in their own right, but when put together they make  a larger, harmonious entity – literally, a big picture …

M.St. research jigsaw

So here’s the research jigsaw I designed for masters level students. I plan to give an introductory session that touches briefly on each piece and how they interlock to create a framework for supporting research. Later in the course we’ll focus on specific pieces when we look at various aspects of the research process in more detail, such as literature searching, information and data management, referencing and attribution, and academic writing.

The question mark is partly in homage to the Three Investigators, whose business cards feature question marks that stand for unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries. That seems to me a pretty good parallel with research – but when I send the diagram to course leaders I might express it a bit more like this:

In this diagram the question mark could stand for creating and developing a research question, e.g. during the dissertation phase. It could also stand for the unpredictable ‘unknown unknowns’ that crop up during the process of doing research, including its emotional impact – stuff that can blindside you, throw a curve ball, or give you a new direction and impetus (sometimes all four). Finally, it also stands for the keystone of research: “never stop asking questions”.

I also had a go at mapping the jigsaw pieces to the ANCIL strands, which worked out well:

M.St. research jigsaw mapped to ANCIL strands

Between all the pieces all but the ‘transitional’ strands, 1 (Transition to Higher Education) and 10 (Social dimension of information), are addressed. Seeing that gap is a useful outcome to the exercise, all by itself.