from the Library of Maura

This is Not a Library Skills Course

May 28th, 2010 · 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.)

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