All posts by Jennifer Jarson

Straight talk: Inviting students’ perspectives on information literacy teaching and learning

My colleagues and I received a grant from our regional consortium to develop information literacy continuing education opportunities for faculty, librarians, and other stakeholders at our institutions. As part of this initiative, we’re planning a one-day symposium during which participants can share successes and challenges in information literacy teaching and learning and that inspires intercampus dialog about our future teaching practices. We plan to include faculty and librarian presentations, discussions, and workshops. I’m especially excited about our plan to organize a panel of undergraduate students. We want to convene this panel so that we can hear directly from students themselves about information literacy teaching and learning. Some of the most interesting pedagogical conversations I have are with students about their perspectives on their own teaching and learning experiences and development. I’m eager to find more ways to facilitate these conversations.

We’re still in the early planning stages and are just beginning to think about how to invite students to participate in the panel and in what areas we want to focus the discussion. I’m so far thinking about posing questions like the following to the student panelists to help guide the session:

  • What information literacy teaching practices, learning experiences, and assignments have helped you learn and grow best?
  • What have been barriers to your information literacy development and successes?
  • What information literacy-related strategies, concepts, or skills have been most confusing or troublesome? Why? Have you been able to overcome those roadblocks? If so, how?
  • Do you think of yourself as an information consumer, creator, or both? How so?
  • What strategies, habits, or attitudes do you practice that help you plan, monitor, and assess your information consumption and creation?
  • What advice would you offer to other students information consumption and creation? About information literacy learning?

If you were to convene a panel of undergrads (or perhaps you already have), what would you want to ask students about information literacy? What do you want an audience of faculty to hear from students about information literacy? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Exploring artifacts of students’ learning trajectories, or The view from here

I’ve been serving on the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at my institution for a little over a year now. If you’re not familiar with the purpose and scope of an IRB, it’s generally the group’s charge to review, approve, and monitor research conducted with human subjects. It’s the IRB’s responsibility to ensure that researchers are taking steps to protect the safety, welfare, rights, and privacy of subjects.

A majority of the applications I’ve reviewed in the past year have been submitted by undergraduate student researchers. At my undergraduate-only institution, it’s not unusual for students to propose and conduct studies. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to see students’ research from this perspective. While I often consult with students working on research projects, it’s usually from my vantage point as a reference/instruction-type librarian. I confer with students as they identify topics of interest, explore the literature, identify gaps, develop searching and organizational strategies, and so on. My position as a member of the IRB offers me a different view of their work. In their IRB applications, students describe: their research aims and procedures, the characteristics of their intended subject population, how they will recruit subjects, how they will protect the privacy and anonymity of their subjects and obtain informed consent from them, how they will safeguard the data they collect, the risks involved in their proposed research, and how they will reduce those risks.

Each student’s application is unique, of course, but my colleagues and I have noticed a few challenges that seem to come up more often than not. Most common among these problem areas is the informed consent form. Northwestern University’s IRB describes the importance of informed consent well: “Obtaining informed consent is a basic ethical obligation and a legal requirement for researchers. This requirement is founded on the principle of respect for persons … [which] requires that individuals be treated as autonomous agents and that the rights and welfare of persons with diminished autonomy be appropriately protected. Potential participants must be provided with information about the research project that is understandable and that permits them to make an informed and voluntary decision about whether or not to participate. The amount of information and the manner of presentation will vary depending on the complexity and risk involved in the research study. Informed consent is an ongoing educational interaction between the investigator and the research participant that continues throughout the study.”

The informed consent form, then, is an important method of communication between researcher and potential subject. In my recent sample of applications, I’ve noticed students struggling to effectively convey their projects’ goals, benefits, and risks to potential subjects. Students sometimes leave out important information about what subjects will be asked to do in the studies. Students also often use very technical or formal language that is not only unfamiliar, but likely inaccessible, to people new to their study or discipline. Of course, we all struggle with this. Once we’re inside a research project or, for that matter, a topic or a process of any kind, it can be hard to step outside and see it from a beginner’s perspective.

It’s interesting, though, to perhaps consider the disconnects visible in the forms students have drafted as artifacts of their transitions from research newcomers to insiders. The students, as they work to research and design their own studies, become increasingly steeped in and comfortable with the methods, language, and conventions of the discipline. They may begin to take pleasure in their growing fluency even. Their facility and satisfaction is visible in the informed consent forms they design. They may not yet, however, have the metacognitive awareness to look past–or perhaps back on–their own trajectories to consider how to communicate effectively with their potential subjects, newcomers to their work. Of course, it’s possible that I’m overreaching a bit with this analysis.

Still, the connections between this work and information literacy teaching and learning seem rather notable to me, especially around the concepts of information ethics and audience. When I began this post, exploring these ideas and accompanying opportunities for teaching was my original purpose. What I find more useful at this moment, though, is this reminder about the journey from newcomer to insider and the viewpoints that journey affords, but also sometimes occludes. Despite my best intentions, where and how have I, by virtue of my sightlines, obscured the potential for others’ understanding or blocked their entry? I’ve written before about how librarians are uniquely positioned as translators, which I consider as one of our profession’s core strengths, opportunities, and responsibilities. I’m grateful for these reminders to pause and reconsider my own position, journey, and viewpoints and how that facilitates or hinders my interactions with my students, as well as my colleagues.

Two perspective triangles, with their perspective axis and center” by Jujutacular is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

What does open pedagogy for information literacy look like?

We’re launching Domain of One’s Own at my institution this year. If you haven’t heard of Domains, it’s a program that helps institutions offer students, faculty, and staff online spaces that they control. Domains grew out of a project at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). Co-founders Jim Groom and Tim Owens have since spun it into a venture all its own. Their company, Reclaim Hosting, has so far launched Domains programs at over 40 institutions. At my institution, our Domains initiative will enable members of our campus community to publish, curate, and share their work online. They will be able to register their own domain names, associate them with a hosted web space, and easily install a variety of applications in order to experiment with both digital tools and digital literacy practices. Digital identity and data ownership are at the core of Domains; it’s about understanding the data that makes up your digital presence, developing facility with digital tools and spaces, and defining who you are online.

We’re launching a few key initiatives as part of our Domains kickoff, most notably a faculty learning community and a cohort of students training to become digital learning assistants. As part of our Domains launch, co-founder Jim Groom came to campus for a series of kickoff events last week. (My colleague Lora Taub-Pervizpour, who has spearheaded Domains on our campus, wrote a great post about Jim’s visit that you might find interesting.) While on campus, Jim talked about how his work at UMW grew into Domains and was, at least in part, motivated by the frustrations of learning management systems. In restricted spaces like Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas, student learning and work products are locked down and immobile. In “The Web We Need to Give Students,” Audrey Watters wrote about how Domains, by contrast, permits students to work in their own spaces. “And then—contrary to what happens at most schools, where a student’s work exists only inside a learning management system and cannot be accessed once the semester is over—the domain and all its content are the student’s to take with them. It is, after all, their education, their intellectual development, their work.” (For some more good reading on Domains, see “A Domain of One’s Own in a Post-Ownership Society” again by Audrey Watters, as well as “Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It?” by Andrew Rikard.)

But this is not (meant to be) a post about Domains really. Instead, all this Domains talk has me thinking about pedagogy and learning. Because Domains is also about openness and transparency.

The success of Domains, Jim said in his keynote, is not about technology. Instead, its success is the openness it facilitates: thinking out loud, engaging in reflective practice with a community of peers. As part of the Domains story, Jim shared his experiences creating ds106, an open, online course on digital storytelling. As described on the site, the course was “part storytelling workshop, part technology training, and, most importantly, part critical interrogation of the digital landscape that is ever increasingly mediating how we communicate with one another.” The course embodied openness in many ways. UMW students enrolled in the semester-long course and served as its core community, but the course was open to anyone who wanted to participate alongside the UMW students. But the part that piqued my interest most was its open pedagogy; Jim talked about how he did the assignments with the students and also described how students created the assignments. “The only reason it worked,” Jim said, “was because we built an open ecosystem for it to thrive.”

This prompted me to reflect on what open pedagogy means, what potential it holds. (Check out “‘Open’ for the Public: Using Open Education to Build a Case for Public Higher Ed”, “Open Pedagogy: Connection, Community, and Transparency”, and “Eight Qualities of Open Pedagogy” for some quick, getting-started readings on open pedagogy.) To me, open pedagogy is an invitation for learning. What grabs me most are the qualities of transparency, community, and responsiveness at its core.

In information literacy teaching and learning, for example, fostering transparency in the classroom might happen when we simply articulate the learning goals for a class or uncover research strategies to expose the what, how, and why of our processes. Open pedagogy means helping students think metacognitively about the strategy of their work to make learning more meaningful and transferable. It also means making the method and purpose of our teaching transparent to students.

Open pedagogy is also about community, inviting students to co-construct learning experiences. Whether asking students to design their own assignments as in Jim’s ds106 case or developing activities grounded in constructivist and self-regulated learning theories or even just asking students about their habits, perspectives, and approaches before telling them what they should do, co-constructed learning increases student agency and investment.

Open pedagogy is about being flexible and responsive. It means meeting learners where they are, rather than where we think they are or should be.

I’m interested to recognize the small ways I’m practicing open pedagogy, but I’m still more interested to identify the opportunities–big and small–that I haven’t yet grabbed hold of. What does open pedagogy for information literacy look like for you? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Attempting to complicate students’ news consumption

“Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.”  –Edward R. Murrow

This past semester, per usual, a faculty member who teaches political science at my institution asked her students to read and watch the news. My colleague incorporated, as she normally does, discussion of current events into class time. The presidential primaries and accompanying media circus in the spring proved especially engaging for the students. The resulting class discussions were often productive, raising important questions and issues about government and politics. Yet the discussions also sometimes revealed students’ challenges with news consumption. Students, for example, seemed to bring information and perspectives to class that were mostly confirmations of what they already thought. Students were usually quick to label partisanship, but otherwise often missed bias in the media. Students sometimes seemed unable to tease apart reporting versus commentary.

These behaviors and challenges are likely not a surprise to most educators, especially librarians. Nor are they unique to college students. Many of us grapple with news consumption ourselves. How could we not, in this age of information overload? We are swimming (or is it drowning?) in a sea of information. To keep our heads above water, we skim just the headlines, we visit the sites or apps we’re most accustomed to, we rely on the stories that turn up in our social media feeds. These practices might make the wide and deep information ocean more easily navigable, but limiting our exposure in these ways can strengthen our confirmation bias and subject us to further filter bubbles.

When a first-year student in my colleague’s class last semester asked her for suggestions on where to go to get news, it gave my colleague pause. Sure, some quick suggestions for selected websites or apps could help that student, and perhaps others, engage with current events. But the student’s question prompted my colleague to think more deeply about students’ news consumption behaviors overall. Where and how were students getting their news, she wondered? How did they approach the news they consumed? She informally surveyed students in her courses to get a sense of their habits and perspectives. When she reached out to me to ask if we might work together to help students engage with news on a more regular basis and in more critical ways, of course I said yes. Now we’re aiming to connect students to reputable news sources, but we’re equally if not more concerned with developing their practices and capacities as news consumers and critical thinkers.

I’ve been exploring a number of news literacy resources for inspiration. And there are, indeed, plenty of inspirational projects already: the Center for News Literacy, The News Literacy Project, Why News Matters, and News Literacy 2016, to name just a few. And there are guides aplenty with lists of links to diverse news databases and sites, plus checklists with criteria for evaluating sources for accuracy and authority. But my colleague and I want to focus more on the important questions that can help students reflect on and shape their behaviors and attitudes about accessing and consuming news. We’re trying to distill those complexities into a simple and accessible (read: short) resource guide. Some of the organizing prompts we’ve been brainstorming so far include:

  • Why does news matter? – An understanding of the role of news in society; Motivation to seek news
  • How does news work? – An understanding of how news systems operate and make money; An understanding of who makes decisions in how news is prioritized, reported, produced in different systems
  • Finding (and diversifying) news – Identifying and selecting news sources; Developing a news consumption habit by integrating news into existing media/device usage; The impact of personal news choices on the diversity of information and perspectives encountered
  • What does “bias” even mean? – An understanding of bias as more than liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican; An understanding that “every source is biased and subjective and be able to contextualize such biases”; Considering what information and perspectives are left out of news; Considering the impact of tone, style, language, etc. on audience perception of news; Considering how personal beliefs and experiences impact individual perception of news
  • Cultivating a questioning attitude – An understanding of confirmation bias; Checking for corroboration/verification; Practicing using the lens of news production systems’ and authors’ practices and motives to examine news sources (Ashley, Maksl, and Craft published some helpful prompts in their News Media Literacy scale.)

I imagine this is a topic near and dear to the hearts and minds of many ACRLog readers, so I’m eager to hear your take. What news literacy work have you been doing? What are your favorite examples of news literacy guides and resources? What do you think are the most important news literacy concepts, questions, and tools for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

“Playable, not just performable”: Telling the story of information literacy

I was reading Carrie Brownstein’s book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, a month or two ago, and a particular passage grabbed me so much that I keep going back to it. If you don’t know Carrie’s work, the short version is that she’s an indie rock/punk icon (best known for her band Sleater-Kinney) and more recently an indie comedy star, too (of TV series Portlandia fame).

Early on in her book, Carrie reflects on the massive stadium-size concerts she attended as a girl. Seeing Madonna and George Michael live was awe-inspiring and set her young adolescent heart and mind alight. She describes “witnessing” the “spectacle” of these events: “The experience … was immense; the grandiosity was ungraspable, it was the Olympics, it was a mountain, it was outer space.”

But Carrie’s story is not just about watching and witnessing; it’s about becoming and making. Which brings me to the part I really love (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Yet the music I was hearing and the concerts I was witnessing were also mystifying and inaccessible. It was the ‘80s, and much of what I loved was synthed-out pop and Top 40 music, more programmed than played. The music was in the room and in my body, yet I had no idea how it had been assembled or how to break it apart.

This, I thought to myself, is exactly what I mean when I talk about information literacy. Carrie’s reflection continued as she described how she bought her first guitar and started going to punk and rock shows at smaller venues (again, the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Here I could get close to the players themselves. I could see how the drums worked with the guitars and bass, I could watch fingers move along frets and feet stomp down on effects pedals, I saw the set lists taped to the floor, and sometimes I was close enough to see the amp or pickup settings. I observed the nature of the bands, their internal interactions, their relationships to one another, as much as I listened. It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable–that it had a process and a seed, a beginning, middle, and end. Everyone who plays music needs to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it. And I suppose this form of witness could happen aurally; perhaps it’s as easy as hearing an Andy Gill riff or a Kim Gordon cadence and knowing intuitively how that all works. Then you form those sounds yourself, with your own hands and your own voice. Or maybe you see it on a video, in footage of a musician who finally translates and unlocks what you thought was a mystery. For me, however, I needed to be there–to see guitarists … in the wholly relatable attire of threadbare T-shirts and jean shorts, enact a weird nerd sexiness, strangely minimal, maximally perverse. I could watch them play songs that weren’t coming out of thin air or from behind a curtain. I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.

It was in the small clubs with small bands, up close and personal, that Carrie could not only experience the music and witness the final product in all its glory, but also figure out how the music was constructed. And better still, how she could construct it, too. I’m not suggesting information literacy has the allure of music shows, large or small. Ha! Instead, I’m saying that I recognize in Carrie’s reflection the power of uncovering process to enable an individual’s participation and agency that is also at the core of information literacy. Her story serves as an illustration of the disconnects that students experience and why it’s important to help them uncover, develop, and articulate process. To see the “mystifying” final product (of scholarly research as published in a journal article or book, for example) is impressive and edifying, but for many is a closed door. To instead understand how something (again, that research) is made–to see its final whole, but also the pieces that make it up and the process of its making–is to open the door to one’s own potential participation.

A few months ago, I posted about some activities I used with students to “dissect” articles. Through these guided activities, we explored how sample articles (one from a scholarly journal, one from The New Yorker) were constructed. The most immediate goal was to help students parse these samples to see how authors use and synthesize sources and to what effect. Dissecting the sources broke open the elegant final products such that students could better see their component parts. By “decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable,” then, the goal was to set students up for constructing their own work, helping them recognize their own potential participation. Not quite the blood and guts of the pit at a punk rock show, but still a developmental and empowering step in its own right.

I’ve put Carrie’s story to use a few times in recent weeks, most notably in conversation with faculty about assignment design and pedagogy. The anecdote’s resonance was apparent in their faces and in our conversation. It occurs to me that this is, at least in part, the kind of thing I meant when I wrote about “writing it better” over a year ago. I’m calling to mind now some of the disappointing moments when I attempted to show others the breadth and depth of information literacy as I see it, but my message fell short or our connection was missed. Compelling examples, stories, and metaphors go a long way to helping us all recognize our common ground. How do you effectively tell the story of information literacy and its power? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…