from the Library of Maura

This is Not a Library Skills Course

May 28th, 2010 by Maura A. Smale · 9 Comments

The information landscape has changed dramatically in the past two decades. It sounds hackneyed and idealistic, but the ability to research and use information in a critical, well-considered way is a life skill that’s increasingly valuable. Our students need to be able to deal with these changes and navigate information resources, even (especially!) those students who aren’t going on to graduate school.

Information literacy is the term used by librarians and others in higher ed to describe these competencies. We teach information literacy to students in many different settings: at the Reference Desk, in one-on-one appointments, via online tutorials and guides, and in “one-shot” library workshops, to name just a few. While there is evidence that these instructional strategies are useful for students, many librarians feel frustrated that our interactions don’t afford us enough time to address much more than the most basic information skills.

There is another way: the information literacy course. With the luxury of a full semester of classes, instructors can work with students to explore the lifecycle of information in depth. Questions for framing the course might include:

  • Where does information come from, how is it produced, and by whom?
  • Why are some information sources privileged and respected while others are not?
  • How can we negotiate complex information issues like access, preservation, privacy, and ethical use?
  • How is information organized (and who does the organizing)?
  • How can we develop strategies for searching and finding relevant information?
  • Why do we evaluate the quality of information? Should we?
  • What are the reasons for documentation and dissemination of information?
  • What role does information play in our lives, in college and beyond?
  • What is the future of information?

This is not a library skills class. We do not spend 15 weeks teaching undergraduates how to act like librarians. Yes, we teach students how to use the online library catalog and databases, but that’s far from our primary goal. In these courses we have the time to encourage thoughtful engagement by students with a wide variety of information and media, as both content producers and consumers.

What could an information literacy course look like? I taught one recently, and during the course we:

– Contrasted publishing in traditional print media like newspapers, magazines, books and scholarly journals, with digital publishing in all forms, from text to audiovisual media.

– Examined and experimented with the opportunities and challenges of participatory media through our interactions both in class and on our course blog, which was openly available on the internet.

– Used our discussion of complex information issues to shape each student’s development of a topic to explore in depth via a research proposal, annotated bibliography, and research paper.

– Investigated the mechanics of information organization in print and digital media, both human-generated and machine-based systems, and experimented with tagging as a classification tool for our course content.

– Applied our knowledge of classification systems to create strategies for searching various information sources successfully. One student remarked that she knew she’d found the most appropriate keywords to use to search for information when she discovered an article on nearly her exact research topic.

– Obtained information on students’ research topics from scholarly, journalistic, and general internet sources, analyzed this information, and presented the results in a research paper.

– Collaborated in pairs to synthesize the results of each student’s research topic, and used an online publishing tool to share the findings. Students chose wikis and blogs for this project and used these spaces in ways that exceeded the requirements of the assignment, for example, to communicate with each other and share notes and resources while the project was in progress.

– Analyzed and documented the process of working on the collaborative project, and presented both the project and documentation to the rest of the class for discussion.

The library doesn’t hold a monopoly on information literacy, of course. Similar work to what’s covered in this course happens in other courses and other departments as well. But information literacy competencies must develop and strengthen over time, and a course can provide our students with a solid foundation on which to build. An information literacy course can help our students hack the new information landscape and prepare for the future.

(Submitted to Hacking the Academy.)

Tags: Uncategorized

9 responses so far ↓

  • Anne Peoples // May 29th 2010 at 4:04 am

    I’ve been reflecting on this too and this is really helpful in moving my thinking along – a lot.

    I started from the point of considering how you could help adult learners, not students. On the basis that they had fewer information skills and needed the help, I wanted to put together a basic toolkit for them to establish their own PLN.

    I realised this was a fallacy early on. The difference between adult learners and students is that the former know what they don’t know and lack confidence, while the latter confuse using the tech with knowing how to use it for learning. Their confidence in their own skills is misplaced.

    Then one of our LIM students, who works for a university careers service, told us that the careers service delivered a compulsory accredited module to all students. Why on earth don’t we do the same? It’s so obvious that it is needed and that libraries and library schools can develop and deliver the content.

  • Randal Baier // May 29th 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Yes, Maura. If you ask an acoustician or an ethnomusicologist what one needs to know to understand (among other things) sound and culture, s/he might prefer giving you a monochord, a tuning fork, or a birimbau rather than an explanation. *Doing* taps into something that is a combination of play, curiosity and creation — ontologizing (?) the actual development of knowledge. I fully enjoy your explication of the course process, trying to develop fluency with information — in a digital world that now gives us the ability to create and produce. This is where I’d like to see us go — students can create archives, deeply mine primary texts, produce media, visualize history, become cartographers and make myriad associations that can break down this bifurcation between mind and knowledge. The affordances of digital culture — skill level and age notwithstanding — are what I see worthy of exploration here.

  • Maura A. Smale (she/her) // May 29th 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Anne and Randal.

    Anne, you make a great point about traditional-age college students and adult learners. We have many students at my college who have returned to college after years in the workplace (as well as those who are fresh out of high school), and it’s an interesting challenge to address the information literacy needs of both. Actually in my course this past semester there was a fairly wide age spread, and I think our work was richer for it.

    Randal, I completely agree with you that our students need the opportunity to work as creators and producers. It was so gratifying to be able to provide that opportunity in my course. And the students really seemed to enjoy the work they did, too.

  • Footenotes » Blog Archive » The Round Up I Wrote While The Oil Spill Keeps On Keepin’ On: 5/24 – 5/30 // May 31st 2010 at 12:05 am

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  • Timothy E. Wilson // Jun 1st 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Maura,

    This was a fascinating read and the course seems not only essential but the beginning of something that I hope will worm its way down the educational rabbit hole over time, attempting to generate a system in which information literacy is imparted as early – suddenly I think perhaps I should have posed this to you as a question rather than a hypothesis – as middle school, or maybe even earlier than that, given that most kids these days learn how to use the internet before they reach middle school age (at least in some minimal, supervised capacity).

    Pretending I asked a question, what do you think are the chances that we’ll see this kind of a development occur?

    Tim Wilson

  • Maura A. Smale (she/her) // Jun 1st 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Hi Tim, thanks for your comment.

    While I’m not as familiar with K-12 education as with post-secondary, I do think the beginnings of internet/media literacy instruction is happening in some schools. And K-12 librarians are teaching it and publishing about it too, at least those districts that are lucky enough to still have funding for libraries and librarians.

    But I think that information literacy needs to be much more formally integrated into the pre-college curriculum (which sounds a bit like authoring my own demise!) It would be ideal if students got to college with at least the beginnings of a solid understanding about where “stuff” on the internet comes from and how it can be used. I wonder if the publicity generated recently about the privacy concerns with Facebook (to take just one example) could help push IL into K-12 ed?

  • Timothy E. Wilson // Jun 2nd 2010 at 1:21 am

    Hi Maura,

    Thanks for the information…I’ll trust you’re a reliable source :-)

    It’s true that the publicity that Facebook has received may have helped add to the uncertainty inherent to internet fact sharing and I don’t doubt that the feelings of insecurity with regard to Facebook represent a doubt infused energy that will be redirected, by certain skillful and opportunistic educators and parents, toward enlightening younger web users (and TV watchers!) as to the importance of examining information with a critical eye.

    …But I don’t see information literacy education developing so rapidly as to put you out of a job, due to fiscal restraints and – of course, and ever ironically – the perennial problem of transforming education despite those who, because education hadn’t yet transformed when they were educated, adamantly oppose educational transformation!


  • Maura A. Smale (she/her) // Jun 3rd 2010 at 9:56 am

    I definitely agree that we’ll still need to focus on information literacy at the college level for a good while yet. Which is a good thing, because I really enjoy my work with students on these issues! :)

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