Information literacy as learner agency


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Slides from the Agency in Education conference, 12 June 2012 (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge).

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  • I’d like to talk about a research project I undertook last year with Dr Jane Secker of LSE. The project was part of the wider Arcadia Programme, which ran from 2008-2011 at Wolfson College in collaboration with Cambridge University Library. The programme as a whole was designed to explore the changing role of academic libraries in a digital age, and to create new programmes and services, particularly for undergraduate students. Arcadia Fellows worked on short, intensive, blue-sky projects with broadly defined 'deliverables' that mapped somewhere onto this diagram. Short generally meant one term in length. My project partner and I had 10 weeks!
  • We were asked to create a revolutionary new curriculum for teaching information literacy to undergraduates in a digital age. The Arcadia Project’s Academic Advisor, John Naughton, who designed this remit for us, is not a librarian: he’s the professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University. Part of the challenge – and the interest – of this project was that the term ‘information literacy’ is a deeply ambiguous one and often contested, or misunderstood. John’s understanding of it was not the same as either Jane’s or mine – and much of what we gained from this research lay in exploring and mapping out what ‘Information literacy’ means to various stakeholders in different sectors of Education. Probably the most frequent meaning of ‘Information literacy’ is as a library thing: it’s particularly associated with academic libraries. And certainly the term is really only used within the library sector. However, as I hope to demonstrate, it denotes something that goes far beyond the library and into the deepest reaches of independent learning.
  • What’s the link with learner agency? Well, here’s part of the definition of information literacy issued by a national research project. The verbs are all about individuals using, taking action, with information. Here being empowered is not just to do with access to information – it goes beyond that and into what people do with it, or to it, or through it.
  • And here is a library definition, from the Association of College and Research Libraries in America, which I like because it stresses the independent, autonomous aspect of information use that’s a key part of information literacy.
  • Even UNESCO gets in on the act – and again it stresses that personal empowerment is the result of information literacy. They actually call it a “basic human right”. This is about being able to judge and make use of information, make their voices heard, and make a difference. So we had ten weeks in which to come up with a practical scaffolding for helping learners in higher education to achieve this – but one which doesn’t tell them what to do or how to do it, but which instead assists them to develop their own independent knowledge framework and take control of and responsibility for their learning.
  • Our initial brainstorming session on our very first day (03 May) raised a number of issues that we pursued throughout the project and that informed it very deeply. You can see the beginnings of the expert consultation that formed one of our research methods in the bottom left-hand corner; the juxtaposition of information and academic skills whose relationship became a very significant focus in the theoretical background. In the bottom right-hand corner we jotted down some attributes that we thought a curriculum for IL should have – and they actually remained the whole way through the project. We also wrote: “Avoid assigning the curriculum to specific roles, e.g. librarian/learning developer/academic - join it up so no-one can argue that ‘it's not my area’"! This last point also remained vital in our thinking, and actually informed a follow-on project which looked at issues around the practical implementation of this curriculum in a number of UK higher education institutions. This had some very interesting findings on role identity and who ‘owns’ information literacy in higher education. These aspects, and the attributes or characteristics that we identified for the curriculum in this first brainstorming, are what makes it different from previous models of information literacy.
  • We finalised our aims for the project shortly after that …
  • And with only 10 weeks in which to put the project together and run it and write up our findings, milestones and deadlines were naturally fairly high on our mind. We initially scoped out a timescale like this. There wasn’t a huge amount of slippage!
  • We chose a dual method approach that catered to the strengths of both researchers: a wide-ranging literature review to set the theoretical context, and a consultation with experts to collect up-to-the-minute views on the future of information literacy. To achieve this consultation we designed a modified Delphi study approach. The Delphi study is ‘ the’ research method for collecting expert opinion on future trends. However, the standard Delphi study requires two rounds of circulation, and the experts involved never meet face-to-face. We felt that in view of our time constraint - and because we wanted practical input into the curriculum development - we modified the Delphi model and included a face-to-face workshop as our second round so we could present the initial format and content of the curriculum they had helped design. Who were the experts? We drew on our own colleague networks and on recent literature to create a list of experts. The academic advisor also had a range of contacts in communications and technology. We also asked our experts in the questionnaire who else they thought we should talk to, so the expert consultation was itself an evolving process. We had 40 names on our original list, and got 23 interviews plus a focus group. What did we ask them? We created a short questionnaire of just 5 questions! 1) What factors do you think will be important in planning this curriculum? 2) What are the key ways you think libraries and librarians can support student learning over the next 3‐5 years? 3) What areas do you think undergraduate students need help with? • What skills can we assume young people will have? • Are there any gaps in skills or expectations between the culture of secondary school and the learning culture of higher education? 4) What issues do you think we should consider when planning this curriculum? 5) Who else do you think we should talk to when planning this curriculum? How did we administer the questionnaire? When we circulated this questionnaire we asked participants to select their preferred method of response. Where face-to-face interviewing was a possibility, we went with this (also a change to the standard Delphi procedure). Participants could also choose to carry out a phone interview, or respond by email. We and used the transcripts to generate categories out of which we created a coding frame. Again because we used a qualitative, emergent design approach, coding categories continued to be generated out of the data until late in the project. We also jumped at the opportunity offered by one of our experts to attend a training workshop for PGCE students focusing on the use of digital tools in the classroom, and we were lucky enough to carry out a small, informal focus group with three of the trainee teachers and one of their PGCE course leaders.
  • Suggestions for the curriculum’s content fell naturally into 10 categories: these went on to become the 10 strands of our curriculum, which I’ll show in a moment. But our experts, rather surprisingly, also had a lot to say about how the curriculum should be taught and implemented.
  • Our experts articulated an issue that’s been emerging from the research literature over the past few years: that IL is not a skill, or a skill-set, but a state of intellectual dexterity, a value framework, a development of autonomous learning. In the higher education context, information literacy is developed over the whole course of the study career, so there must be an ongoing, modular ‘chunked’ approach. The teaching style must support the evolution of independent learning, so it can’t be prescriptive or mandate certain ‘right answers’ or ‘right ways to use information’. It’s the student who must be able to choose what constitutes the most appropriate information to use in a particular context, and the best way to use it, which means that as one expert says, “Rather than focusing on resources, IL instruction should be focusing on habits of mind” (Expert Report). With this realisation we can see that outside the library world, elsewhere in academia and in lifelong learning, information literacy has other names, which include independent learning; critical thought; scholarly rigour; even scientific method.
  • We looked hard at whether we needed to include ‘digitalness’ or technology as a discrete strand in our curriculum, but ultimately we figured we were looking at it the wrong way up and that ‘digitalness’ is a bit of a red herring. ‘Digitalness’ is a part of the way we live now, but this should not lead us to assume either that every new undergraduate will have his or her own device, be active on social media, or only read e-books! Our view is that information literacy refers to all forms of information, including analogue, digital, visual and and anything else as a part of a broad landscape of information. What matters is not the platform or the format, but the context, and the uses to which students are expected to put various types of information at each stage of the scholarly career. Our research doesn't split off digital or other literacies into a separate conceptual container - the focus is rather on developing students' abilities, attitudes and values across all aspects of information use and handling so that they are equipped to deal with information judiciously, no matter what format they encounter it in.
  • In terms of curriculum content, the categories generated from the data fell into ten ‘strands’. Again, we’re specifically looking at the higher ed context, and within that at the undergraduate experience of information. These strands address how uses of information shape and measure the course of undergraduate learning. How well you employ information dictates how well you succeed in the academic context. You need a complex, nuanced understanding of that context’s unspoken expectations around information behaviour – where you look for it (strands 4, 5), how you manage it (strands 6, 7), how you present it (strands 3, 8, 9). The full curriculum ‘unpacks’ each strand into more granular chunks and includes sample activities and assessments for each chunk.
  • Some of this content of course is communicated as part of mainstream academic teaching. But there is a big emphasis on using classroom time for subject learning, so while some of this content – particularly the evaluative and critical components - is naturally intertwined with mainstream teaching, some of the other issues are not articulated. It may take some time for students even to realise that a change in the learning culture has occurred, because this takes place at such a deep level that it is very often not explained. This is where I think our research goes beyond creating some classes for teaching undergraduates in how to manage and use academic information efficiently and starts to touch on the issue of learner agency in higher education ...
  • Because it looks as if what we’re doing at the moment has created a chasm between ‘academic’ competences or behaviours and ‘information skills’, or study skills, which are perceived as something low-level, separate and bolt-on, rather than a reflective approach or frame of mind. Existing information literacy models have tended to focus on competency standards, outlining a ‘right’ way of searching and outputting information, as though we can ‘sign off’ students once and for all when they reach the required standard (which happens once and for all). Information literacy is not usually part of the mainstream academic curriculum and is often built on a deficit model in which it’s up to the student to bridge a skills gap because they’re falling short of required standards or expectations that they should have somehow developed prior to this point. Paradoxically, this ends up robbing the learner of agency while dumping them with all the responsibility.
  • But this does not meet students’ needs: even academics say so. We’re not supporting the development of precisely what higher education is supposed to produce: a judicious and informed individual capable of creative, holistic thinking. And this is because we’ve misunderstood the role that information literacy plays in the learning process. We’ve tried to put it into one of these boxes, as a thing that needs to be learned, instead of perceiving that the individual’s relationship with information in a given context is a vital part of the learning framework itself .
  • It’s this framework that enables us as individuals to dismantle or recconceive those boxes. This means that – again in the words of one of our expert consultants – we “must start by looking at what the students need and expect .... we are too embedded in ‘We know what you need to learn and we’ll tell you.’ Academia needs to employ a learner-centred pedagogy and culture.” These responses are all about ‘information literacy’ – except they’re not: they’re about the experience of learning. They’re about how we support and help our students to develop. They’re about how we teach - everyone in the institution. They’re about the function of higher education, ultimately. Because education is about “helping learners negotiate and make sense of the changing information landscape” – about sense-making, building a narrative to cope with that immense complexity.
  • The ANCIL definition of information literacy
  • The outputs of the research
  • Information literacy as learner agency

    1. 1. Information literacy as learner agencyDr Emma CoonanResearch Skills & Development Librarian, Cambridge University LibraryAgency in Education Conference, 12 June 2012Education Faculty, University of Cambridge
    2. 2. Arcadia Programme Rethinking the role of the research library in a digital age
    3. 3. Project remit Develop a new, revolutionary curriculum for information literacy in a digital age
    4. 4. Information literacy ... “Being able to use different ways of findinginformation and being able to judge whether the information is trustworthy or accurate is vital: it opens up choices, empowers us and can give us more confidence.” (Welsh Information Literacy Project, 2011)
    5. 5. Information literacy ... Learners can “extend their investigations,become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning” (ACRL, 2000)
    6. 6. Information literacy ... “empowers people in all walks of life to seek,evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals.” (UNESCO, 2005)
    7. 7. Project aimsUnderstand the needs of undergraduatesentering HE over the coming 5 yearsMap the current landscape of informationliteracyDevelop practical curriculum and supportingresources
    8. 8. Milestones and deadlinesLiterature review/catch up - 6-9th May and ongoingBest practice review - 6th-13th May and ongoingExpert consultation: pilot - 13th MayExpert consultation: interviews - 16th-27th MayFirst draft outline - 8th JunePlan next stage and reviseExpert consultation workshop: during week of 13th-20th JuneFinal curriculum, evidence toolkit, framework review and literature reviewby 8th July
    9. 9. ‘temple to apollo’ by zoe52, ‘Phrenology’ by dylan17 licensed under Creative Commons at
    10. 10. Analysing the data: qualitative categoriesWhat should be taught: curriculum contentHow it should be taught: pedagogic implications
    11. 11. Format and structure of the curriculumTiming of the interventionsTeaching style and the method of deliveryRole of audits and assessmentMarketing and promotion, key driversand barriers to implementationConsiderations around technology
    12. 12. Considerations around technology
    13. 13. Why aren’t we doing this already?
    14. 14. Why aren’t we doing this already?... And what are we doing instead?
    15. 15. “ ... the main gap I am finding is with regards to criticaland holistic thinking. There seems to be a teach‐to‐testculture which focuses on circumscribing knowledgeinto manageable boxes ... ” (ANCIL Expert Consultation Report, 2011)
    16. 16. “ ... that is not the world we inhabit .... we draw theseboxes to simplify the immense complexity we face, butI think that increasingly we are, in the informationsociety, having to interact directly with this complexityand additional strategies ... are needed.” (ANCIL Expert Consultation Report, 2011)
    17. 17. A New Curriculum for Information Literacy• Curriculum • Resource wiki• Expert consultation report • Video• Theoretical background report • Lesson planning tool• Concept diagram • Institutional audit tools• Information literacy definition • Book
    18. 18. A New Curriculum for Information Literacy ‘Tulip stairs’ by mcginnley licensed under Creative Commons at