IL Course Credit Does Not Equal Credibility

I can’t argue with many of the points William Badke makes in his infolitland column in the November/December 2008 issue of Online (subscription required) titled “Ten Reasons to Teach Information Literacy for Credit.” All of Badke’s ten reasons will gain full support from any information literacy advocate. Everything from driving students to higher quality information resources to creating greater awareness about library e-resources to providing authentic learning opportunities and even the value of our old friend lifelong learning – it’s all good. I only have two issues with Badke’s article. First, with most of his points he’s preaching to the choir. Faculty and administrators are the ones who need to hear his arguments, and not too many of them read Online. Second, I’m not convinced that creating for-credit information literacy courses or modules is going to achieve our end goal – integrating information literacy into and across the curriculum. Done right, information literacy can be credible – no credits necessary.

There are two basic models for delivering information literacy; compartmentalized and distributed. My reading of the information literacy research suggests the distributed model, in which information literacy is integrated into courses across many disciplines and spread throughout the student’s academic career – starting with freshman reading/writing courses and ending in the capstone – has proven effectiveness. Badke may disagree with that observation because he writes that his courses “lead to consistent and and relatively permanent attainment of both knowledge and skills that match the ACRL standards for information literacy.” If he’s getting successful results that’s great, but I’m not sure it can be generalized to compartmentalized approaches to information literacy. The true power of the curriculum-integrated distributed model is its direct relevance to the student’s disciplinary work. Whether he or she is an english or business major, what they are learning about research skills is directly connected to their assignments – not ones constructed by librarians outside the subject major. The great challenge of the distributed model is that creating a successful initiative can take years, lots of effort and will have difficulty suceeding without significant faculty collaboration – particularly in the area of designing appropriate assignments.

The compartmentalized model is more typically the standalone for-credit course. Logistically it can be a bit more complicated to build it into the academic schedule; at large institutions it is also a challenge to have enough librarians available to teach all the sections needed for hundreds of students. But the dedicated information literacy course clearly gives librarians more control over the content and much more student time is devoted to developing information literacy skills. The real challenge is whether it’s required or not. From his article I take it that Badke’s institution has a three-credit IL course, but that it’s not required. He refers to the experience of a student who took the course and one who didn’t. If the course is not required just exactly what makes us think students will rush to register for it? Another downside to the credit-bearing IL course is that once it’s over it’s over. The problems come when faculty point to the course and develop a “the librarians teach information literacy in their credit course so the students learn everything about it there – I don’t need to deal with it” mentality. So students get some authentic learning in the librarian’s course, but then there’s little in the way of reinforcement in their disciplinary courses. Faculty just ingnore information literacy. It then becomes an awkward appendage to the curriculum which some students take, other don’t and for which faculty take no responsibility.

Why the assumption that information needs to be taught for credit to give it credibility? I think what Badke is suggesting is that faculty will buy into the idea of information literacy as a legitimate academic subject only if we can convince the curriculum committee members to allow us to teach it as a full credit-bearing course. For one thing, you could get your way and have an information literacy course for credit, and still have faculty who scoff at the idea of giving academic credit for an information literacy course. In fact, they may grow even more resentful about information literacy as a stand-alone course because it means there are fewer credits students can apply to courses in their discipline. So I’m reluctant to believe there is a connection between credit and credibility. If credibility is what we seek it may be better to pay attention to what David Watt had to say about the faculty view of information literacy. His point was that if we want faculty to really respect what information literacy is all about – and Badke does an outstanding job of presenting the case for why it is critical to student academic success – it may be best to focus on the hope of faculty for their students rather than trying to sell them on the merits of information literacy programs. By focusing on our common goals for student academic success, and through collaboration in and out of the classroom, I think we’ll make more progress with faculty. I don’t really care whether a faculty member thinks information literacy is a credible academic subject. As long as he or she is allowing me to participate in their course to integrate research skill building and weave it course assignments, then all that matters is that together we are enabling students to achieve designated information literacy learning outcomes.

Let’s not forget that higher education is expensive. Students and their parents may question, justifiably so, spending what could be the equivalent of thousands of dollars on a library research course. I’m not saying I don’t think it’s valuable. I’m just questioning how it will be perceived by important constituents. So let’s avoid getting into that debate. Let’s instead concentrate our efforts on integrating information literacy skill building into the existing course structure, and over time create a learning environment in which faculty can accept responsibility for information literacy education. My long-term version for information literacy is that it will not need to be a course or a module or anything else that is distinct from what students are otherwise doing in their coursework. It should be as transparent to the student as possible. A student would never be in a situation where he or she is given the option to learn how to be information literate – or needs to make a choice about taking a for-credit research course – or worse being forced to expend valuable course credits on such a course. Rather, it is just simply an integral component of what they learn in their courses – and faculty are largely the ones communicating the knowledge and skills.

Whichever side of this fence you sit on I would commend Badke’s article to you. It reminds us why information literacy is so important to our students and our future role in higher education. I imagine that as a profession we will continue to debate the best ways to accomplish our common goals for information literacy.

7 thoughts on “IL Course Credit Does Not Equal Credibility

  1. Thank you, Steven, for your perceptive comments. One clarification, and a comment of my own:

    1. Our institution did have a 3 credit information literacy course as an elective in the Communications Dept. (thus my reference to one student who took it and one who did not), but, as an elective, it died due to lack of enrollment. The Comm. Dept. came back with a plan to develop a writing course that would be part of the Communications core (required), and we info lit librarians were able to establish a significant information literacy component within the course while also getting Comm faculty exactly on the same page with us about its need and content. The course is due to run for the first time January-April 09.
    2. The ideal would be to have info lit throughout the curriculum, making it foundational to all study (as in – What are the information sources for this discipline, how to we find relevant information, how do we evaluate it?, etc), but faculty have to understand information literacy in this way. Most do not. That is why I believe credit instruction in some form (stand alone or integrated) is the path to showing the viability of info lit and also helping faculty to understand it. But I do believe this credit instruction needs to be done within subject disciplines.

  2. I teach an elective course – which usually fills, but the enrollment cap is very low. It’s a joy to teach because the students who take it want to be there. It would not be much fun for anyone if it were required, and I’m not sure how much they’d learn under duress.

    One thing that I decided (after years ago teaching an entry level course of this type) is that I’d pitch this as an advanced course primarily for students planning on graduate study. They’re much more likely to be able to contextualize what they’re learning since they have some experience and a much richer knowledge base than first year students, and they have more sophisticated ways of applying it in their upper level courses.

    We’re wrestling a bit with the disconnect between what we do with first year, first semester courses and upper level disciplinary courses. So often, there’s a gap between the first semester and junior year where they may not have all that many assignments that ask them to find and use information independently. Ideally, we want students to know how information in their major works, but also how to be ready to find out about anything so they’ll be prepared for engaged citizenship – but those aren’t necessarily the same thing.

  3. Currently we have a one unit stand alone required IL class, and we are currently in the midst of ending it. We’ve found several problems with the stand alone course:
    1. the students don’t take a one unit course seriously and really don’t put out the effort to learn the material.

    2. the students, mostly freshman, don’t really want to be there neither do they understand why they are there. Unfortunately, they really don’t have much heavy research in their course work until they are juniors and seniors. At the freshman level they have nothing to connect the course too, they don’t understand the need, and they generally forget the material by the time that they do need it.

    We would like to kill the class and integrate IL throughout the curriculum for all levels of students — freshman and seniors alike. We would like to do this by having more workshops for the faculty, more in-class instruction with the classes and their instructors, seminars, roundtable IL discussions with grad students and seniors working on their senior thesis and through whatever we can think of.

    The students tend to use IL more if they see it demonstrated by their instructors and if the instructors include IL in their assignments (something more than “find me two articles in the databases on subject xyz”).

  4. Pingback: Staying the Course

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