Tag Archives: framework

More than a Mausoleum: The Library at the Forefront of Digital Pedagogy

This is adapted from a talk at the Utah Symposium on Digital Humanities, February 11th 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed a shift in the ways in both everyday folk and academics encounter the world. The promise of web 2.0 and the rise of the network has seen the input of every individual increase in importance. For universities, the consequences of this go well beyond social media presences or heated debates in comment threads, it challenges the very nature of the ivory towers our universities are constructed on top of. Some of the more nostalgic set have opined about the “death” of the traditional library and how universities need to “Save the stacks.” Are we losing the traditional library to chase digital trends?

Even I got in on the fun…

No longer are libraries cenotaphs of long dead books but a growing organism contributed, curated, and built by the members of the university community. A focus on digital pedagogy, allows librarians the flexibility to enter this new age of librarianship with a clearer idea of what we’d like the library to be 10, 15, or 20 years from now.

Not a library, a real cenotaph. (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rick Anderson tells us it is a commonality amongst new librarians to say that the collection is dead. Rather than death, I think of it as a transition as significant as the one from scroll to codex, or manuscript to print.

I am choosing to illustrate how I see the future of collections shape up in the digital future. Buildings come in different sizes and shapes, staff perform different roles but collections, that is items preserved for use by research are common in most if not all library experiences throughout history. The collection forms the backbone of our pedagogical role.

With this in mind what are the principles of digital pedagogy in modern librarianship?
  1. Student voices matter, as much as established ones, in the conversation.
  2. Access goes beyond the limits of the library and campus
  3. The future of library is based on student needs both pedagogical and inspirational and the collection needs to mirror this.

By focusing in on the creation of scholarship by students into collections we are building upon the library’s core historical strengths while improving the teaching done in classrooms. We also exhibit examples of student work and learning to the world in perpetuity.

Librarians are often assaulted with comments that “all information is on the internet” and while many have struggled against this assumption and beaten it back in deference to our job security it is a fact that the internet has fundamentally changed the way that we receive information. As Lyman Ross and Pongracz Sennyey comment in “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library” published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship  “the Internet has lowered the cost of propagating information to negligible levels. This fact diminishes the value of local collections and services. Libraries are no longer islands of information.”(Ross and Sennyey pg 146)

And as the digital world encroached on the library, as it did on most of our lives and interactions, the edifices faded. First it was the building, allowing access outside of the footprint of the traditional library, then it was the staff who became teachers rather than guardians, what happened to our prized collections?

David Lewis in Reimagining the Academic Library comments that “Until quite recently what constituted the scholarly record seemed clear, or at least we understood that portion that was the library’s responsibility.” (Lewis 32) But that now we have entered a new stage of ambiguity caused by digital objects. Information Literacy exists against this backdrop of unclear scholarly records.

This has led some researchers, David Lewis included, to argue that the maintenance of non-unique print collections should no longer be a focus of academic institutions. Instead, digital collections, costing significantly less to maintain and often times infinitely more usable and accessible than singular print copies. While a shift away from the collection of books and toward the teaching and the impacting of students is necessary, I argue it is not an end to the collections based approaches that define the library.

While I do not completely agree that our print collections are no longer necessary, our communities are pushing our hands when it comes to demanding access to more digital materials, outside of the building, and off of campus.

The loss of the stacks is mourned by many nervous colleagues. Some of this nervous energy has prompted change in library circles. When the Association of College and Research Libraries introduced a new framework for information literacy, it was met, as all change does, with both praise and scorn.

Part of this framework was a large redefinition of the task of research, which increasingly takes the focus of librarianship away from books and dust and places it into the classroom.

One movement in particular that I believe is of note here is the idea that of “Scholarship as Conversation”

The framework states that “Communities of scholars, researchers, or professionals engage in sustained discourse with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of varied perspectives and interpretations”

Part of this is the necessary focus on citations as a communicative tool between the researcher and the past, but buried in here is the way in which we can use the tools of the digital to promote our student’s incorporation into this community.

“New forms of scholarly and research conversations,” the framework continues, “provide more avenues in which a wide variety of individuals may have a voice in the conversation.”

It is through digital pedagogy that we have the chance to offer our students keys to this conversation, either through publishing, the creation of exhibits, or the production of knowledge itself. Libraries then need to be at the forefront of this transition, from static collections based and traditional “gatekeeper” mentalities to the research driven and student driven collection creation.

While librarians have been quick to reject the gatekeeper mentality, faculty in fields across campus have been hesitant to give up the reins of the academic conversation. Some institutions have had long histories of undergraduate research prior to the age of the internet, it is the openness in the digital world that prompted a revolution in student publishing.

Char Booth explains in “Open Access as Pedagogy” that digital publishing “grants privilege and power to student authors, gives them space to assert their intellectual agency, allows them to enter the academic conversation and…maybe alter some professional paradigms.”

Entering this academic conversation encourages students to reject the monolithic scholarly record that dominates our ideas of the University, and telling students their voice matters allows a reconfiguring of the idea of research. The best way to understand research is to conduct it yourself. There are more tangible reasons this is innovative.

Char Booth continues “With that newfound power comes responsibility; with Open Access comes exposure…leads these already ambitious students to dig deeper into primary and secondary sources, to think harder about their meaning and value to their scholarship and to argue more effectively and write more forcefully.” (Booth 6)

Feeling that student work is often too “un-polished” or “not up to par” with the rigorous examinations that come after years of graduate school. Some are worried that student work will impact their own standing as professional academics. Bad student work with a faculty name on it reflects poorly on mentorship.

In giving the keys of scholarship to our students we promote not only their work but the University as a whole; much like open access creates exposure for us on the Tenure Track, our students become examples. By opening up the collection to reworking by students we not only improve their education but we break down the barriers that hold new ideas back.

It rejects the model of the library as a singular direction where the collection is controlled by the librarian and lent to the student or researcher. Instead it breaks down those barriers to encourage the exchange of information and ideas across all levels.

Nowhere on campus is better for this kind of interdisciplinary engagement, and nowhere is better suited for the task of preserving collections, albeit digital ones, then the organization trusted with this preservation since Alexandria. This is not a death for the library, or of the collection, but a new beginning.

Put a Process On It!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Angela Rathmel to the ACRLog team. Angela is the head of Acquisitions & Resource Sharing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Her research focuses on libraries’ organizational response to changes in scholarly publishing, acquisition, and access, particularly with respect to organizational communication, information seeking, and knowledge management.

Working in acquisitions and resource sharing, I sometimes struggle to navigate my unique and shared place in the various communities of this profession (ACRL, ALCTS, LLAMA, etc.). I’m often characterized as a “technical services” librarian, but this does not always adequately describe the work I do. In the past 15 years that I have worked in this part of the library, I have seen dramatic changes as a result of the material transition of print to electronic resources. Beyond just the physical format, these changes have meant that technical services staff now work more directly with library users and no longer just process behind the scenes. Our work also involves direct and frequent interaction across more areas of the library than ever before.

I genuinely enjoy working with people. Discovering new ways to communicate across the library, especially through radical change, fascinates me. In spite of these interpersonal interests, in many ways I fall right into the technical services stereotype. I’m a cautious communicator, and my go-to mode of thinking is to solve every issue with a systematized process. Give me a problem and I’ll “put a process on it”!

A particularly cogent example of this tendency occurred recently with some of my colleagues in “public services” (another phrase that no longer adequately describes their work). We were discussing our campus-wide initiatives in diversity, equity, and social justice and how the libraries could support these initiatives throughout all of our services, not just at the service desk.  I saw this as a perfect opportunity to once again lower the barriers between technical and public services. But I worried because I found myself expressing the challenge many of us in technical services face even initiating discussions about our own day-to-day work conflicts. I was fearful about my ability, especially as a leader, to initiate a productive conversation with my staff about conflicts, like microagressions, of which individuals may not even be aware. So, I did what I often do when faced with uncertainty — I put a process on it! I suggested that we solicit the help of trained facilitators from the libraries’ organizational development unit. As one of those trained facilitators, this seemed both a safe way for me get involved, while at the same time satisfying the requirements of scale.

I was amazed at how my colleague’s response could all at once genuinely honor my approach and also persuasively encourage each of us to find our own (maybe different) path. This was not the first time I have questioned the appropriateness of my knack to put a process on things. But that discussion was moment of clarity shaping everything I’ve encountered and thought about since. It has prompted me to examine more closely and even question this tendency that has served me well so far in my path in technical services. I thought I’d begin my introductory post to ACRLog sharing my experience as this kind of librarian, and hopefully in the process discover more about a path forward.

The draw of process

When I talk about process in this context, I mean the way in which I think through the steps of workflow, understand cause and effect, and most efficiently move from point A to point B, all while accounting for the connections in between. For acquisitions and resource sharing, the overarching process we are concerned with is the scholarly communication supply chain and its ability to get the resources users need as efficiently as possible. Individual motivations for this work vary, of course. Some enjoy improving these processes for the economic reasons: the joy of saving money, cutting costs, and demonstrating a return on investment. Some like the ever present source of a puzzle to solve. Many still are motivated by service and how the process makes it easy for other people. Some like fighting for our core values through the process of negotiation with vendors. For the more introverted among us, it seems that processes at their root help create predictability where a thing might otherwise be or feel out of control. This certainly describes the environment in which libraries and we librarians of all types have found ourselves ever since change became the new normal.

The benefit of process is not just for the individual coping with change. It has a direct benefit to the organization as a whole. In my experience, process helps me discover and understand how to use new technologies effectively.  Process has been the language I use to help others through ongoing training. In my library as whole, that language enables me to translate the impact of larger change on our work. Becoming a trained facilitator, I’ve learned better processes of communication between individuals or groups, made meetings run more smoothly, facilitated strategic planning and assessment efforts, and contributed to larger organizational change. How each area within the library addresses their own particular management of perpetual change has brought about all manner of processes, frameworks, assessment models, and mission statements. It seems librarians of all types can put a process on just about everything.

Process in the extreme

The consequence of taking process thinking too far is that it can get in the way of actual doing, or worse, overlook the human need in all of us for deeper meaning and connection. Technical process efficiency taken to its extreme is automation. Even the rise in library automation processes, however, has not eliminated the need for human aspects in the most technical of workflow processes because the environment is filled with people serving people.  I tend to perceive my own process as an act of creativity. As my leadership responsibilities move me from introversion to ambiversion, I prefer to process with others, creating new things and building new relationships. Additional research, suggesting that our minds do not even process or recall like computers at all, supports the notion that there is a more creative present and future for our work.

Processes involved in addressing continual change on an organizational level are essentially human-oriented. These can’t achieve the extreme of automation because they too require ongoing attention for the people involved. How our relationships change, how we communicate across new organizational structures, and how we respond to actual people, are a necessary part of our response to the rapid changes in our work. People and their relationships certainly don’t want to be processed; they need to be seen, understood, and valued.

Process to path

The conclusions I’ve come to are:

  • we need both technical process mindedness and relational mindedness
  • these are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Getting myself to that point means rediscovering the areas of research that piqued my curiosity and inspired my passion for this profession from the start – Devin’s sense-making and research around the reference interview. This research speaks directly to how our systematized human processes and automated systems can and should be relational. The fundamentals of communicating in our profession are constructive,  “tied to specific times, place, and perspectives” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p.5). This applies not only for dealing with patrons, but for dealing with one another, inside and across library departments.

I intend to stay involved in interactions and discussion like the one that prompted this reflection. I may not have the capacity yet to effectively communicate, or know how to take action, on issue of diversity, equity and social justice. But I know enough that it is my privilege to learn. My awareness and willingness seem small to me, but I can accept them as important and necessary steps on my larger path.


Dervin, B. and Foreman-Wernet, L. (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

The Best Work I Do is at the Intersections

November was a whirlwind. I felt both overwhelmed and enlightened after #OpenEd15 in Vancouver last week. The conference empowered me to see a different side of the Open Education movement, which helped me realize just how much I still have to learn. Still, I found myself yearning for more critical, strategic conversations about openness. Both Robin DeRosa and Adam Heidebrink-Bruno have written brilliant reflections about this that echo my feelings.

I also just completed the interview process to become a curriculum designer/ presenter for ACRL’s Intersections initiative. While I didn’t end up getting the position, the interview process made me seriously reflect on how my work engages information literacy, scholarly communication, and rich and important intersections of both. After visiting an Anthropology of Social Movements course last week to talk about Open Access and activism, I knew that I needed to reflect on just how important these intersections are.

I have extensive experience with teaching information literacy sessions and concepts. I have created workshops, programming, and grant opportunities that engage altmetrics, OA, and other scholarly communication issues. I have talked to LIS classes and international librarians about how to not only find and evaluate OER but also how to share their own learning objects openly. Yet, I still struggle with articulating how exactly the intersections of these two areas are present in my work. I wholeheartedly believe that the intersections are integral and—dare I say it—the most important component of what I do. But that doesn’t mean that they are always tangible or even visible.

I think that this is explained, in part, by how ingrained they are in how I teach and engage.

ACRL’s Intersections of Scholarly Communication and Information Literacy document identifies three important intersections that librarians should strategically pursue:

1) economics of the distribution of scholarship (including access to scholarship, the changing nature of scholarly publishing, and the education of students to be knowledgeable content consumers and content creators);

2) digital literacies (including teaching new technologies and rights issues, and the emergence of multiple types of non-textual content);

3) our changing roles (including the imperative to contribute to the building of new infrastructures for scholarship, and deep involvement with creative approaches to teaching).

The document and responses to it hold that while scholarly communication outreach is traditionally focused on collections/faculty and information literacy work is traditionally focused on students/pedagogy, this dichotomy is continually blurring (pg. 20). Students are blogging, publishing in undergraduate journals, and deciding how to share their honors theses and other publications. Further, many experiential learning opportunities ask students to delve into digital content creation, which often intersects with librarians’ expertise in data literacy, intellectual property issues, and copyright. All librarians, particularly information literacy librarians that work closely with students, need to be knowledgeable about scholarly communication topics and think critically about how it redefines their work.

I find the ways that scholarly communication is being infused with information literacy even more interesting and exciting, partly because I believe that IL can make scholarly communication outreach more holistic and approachable. One of the best examples of this is librarians’ outreach on altmetrics and impact factor. Asking faculty and graduate students to think critically about how we evaluate scholarship and what impact really means to them as scholars and information consumers is information literacy. When I taught an altmetrics workshop, I didn’t just teach tools like the ISI’s JCR, Google Scholar, and Impact Story. I taught participants how to interrogate what impact is and the role it has in academia. I asked them to consider why the academy should value public discourse and impact. I pushed them to find a combination of metrics would give others a holistic view of their own impact. In my mind, this is “Scholarship as a Conversation” at its best. This is information literacy at its best.

The ACRL Intersections document built a valuable foundation for me to understand these intersections. But I’d like to use this space to push the boundaries. Are there intersections that are even more unique and, thus, less visible? Are there intersections that are pushing our job descriptions and our conceptions of our work even further? I’ll list a few that have been on my mind a lot lately. These are, of course, up for debate.

As I present Open Access issues to students, I have a slide that asks “how can libraries keep buying these journals? How can faculty keep publishing in them?” I usually talk about the faculty reward system and how faculty are incentivized to publish in high impact journals, regardless of their cost. But then Emily Drabinski tweeted something that made me reconsider my explanation:

emily's tweet

Since then, I’ve been thinking about discovery a lot. Scholarship is about more than tenure. Faculty want to share their life’s work with others that care about their niche too. What if, instead of using my watered down explanation, I asked students the question “why even publish in a journal? What is the benefit of doing so?” I think the result would be a much more rich conversation about indexing, how databases organize information, which journals are in each database, how information flows within the academy, and why we search the way that we do. It would bring “Searching as Strategic Exploration” to the next level. Instead of just teaching them Boolean, I would be teaching them all of the connecting dots for why Boolean is a useful searching mechanism within databases. Further, I would be connecting IL and SC in a rich and nuanced way.

I know what you’re thinking! Isn’t that too complicated for undergraduates? Don’t they just need a two minute explanation about AND/ OR/ NOT? In their recent book chapter about the intersections of IL and SC, Kim Duckett and Scott Warren provide an explanation for why they think complexity is both valuable and necessary:

True enculturation takes time, but if students must find, read, understand, and use peer-reviewed literature in a rhetorical style mimicking scholars, they deserve to have these concepts, tools, and values explained to them in order to facilitated the process of becoming more academically information literature and hence better students (29)

The second intersection I see is what I personally regard as the most interesting aspect of my work and the most valuable intersection of these areas that I live in. I attempted to articulate it in a recent Twitter debate:

sarah's tweet

I believe that the most integral statement in the Framework for Information Literacy is “Experts understand that value may be wielded by powerful interests in ways that marginalize certain voices” (para 16). Information production is an undeniable intersection that has value in the IL classroom just as much as it does in a SC consultation with a faculty member.

Last semester, my team started exploring how the concept of information privilege might be incorporated into our information literacy goals. In doing so, we want to make students aware of the great amount of information privilege and access they have while they are at Davidson. We also hope to make them aware of how they will lose that access. We frame this conversation around their opportunity to change the system as knowledge creators. We hold that they too are authors and can decide how they’d like to share and disseminate their own work.

A second goal of addressing information privilege focuses on who can enter the scholarly conversation. In almost every IL session I do, I find that students have a very shallow understanding of credibility and expertise. Scholarly communication through blogs, social media, and other informal channels is deemed illegitimate or untrustworthy, which often creates a barrier for many voices. Credentials are equated with PhDs, so a person’s lived experience isn’t even considered. Format is an oversimplified indicator of quality and a crutch for students really interrogating a publication’s vetting process. We should push our students to consider how they privilege specific information formats, voices, or vetting systems in their research and how this replicates privilege.

The second-most valuable intersection I’ve found is Open Educational Resources (OER). In my opinion, OER combine the most interesting aspects of SC and IL. OER outreach is focused on access and licensing but also instructional design and pedagogy. This brings me back to #OpenEd15 and the reflections that Robin and Adam wrote. Interestingly, Robin and Adam both use information production and social justice as a lens for understanding open education.

The most powerful portion of Adam’s post:

 Yet the amount of information produced needs to be measured in relation to its quality. Empirical studies suggest that, while it isn’t the industry-standard double-blind peer-review, the information on Wikipedia is fairly accurate. We’ve reiterated this finding for nearly a decade and still Wikipedia has not and will not become a widely accepted location for academic knowledge. Something else is going on. And I think it has to do with the grossly simplified definitions of “reliability” and “credibility” used in such studies. Researchers often assume that quality is a measure of error.

In an open context, however, I argue that quality is a measure of inclusion.

Robin adds that engaging and involving learners must be at the forefront “so that knowledge becomes a community endeavor rather than a commodity that needs to be made accessible” and that open licenses are much more valuable than open textbooks because the license “enables us to do more with the ideas that we ourselves as learners, teachers, scholars are generating.”

The OER movement, at its best, is about doing the important work of making knowledge creation both accessible and inclusive. It’s about moving beyond linear information presentation and instead asking students to have ownership and autonomy over their learning. It’s the same work that I try to do with my students in the information literacy classroom. The intersections enable us to go beyond increasing access; they give us a space to consider how we can foster increased participation and inclusivity through that access.

I started this post with recognizing how much November resembled a whirlwind for me. I wholeheartedly recognize that my writing here mirrors one as well. It is disjointed and maybe even scattered. But sometimes our best work comes as a blur. This is how many of my thoughts develop, how much of my work is shaped and improved. It’s an uncomfortable, confusing process. But as much as it is confusing, it is rewarding. Being intentional and honest about where I find value in my work, where I don’t, and how I need to improve is worth it.

Where do you do your best work? How is that place changing?

Note: This post does not represent ACRL or the ACRL Intersections Professional Development Working Group.

Teaching with Big Ideas: How a Late Addition to the ACRL Framework Might Make Us Rethink Threshold Concepts

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Eveline Houtman, Coordinator of Undergraduate Library Instruction at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

From What’s the matter with threshold concepts? ACRLog Jan. 30, 2015

The notion of threshold concepts is at the heart of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and has been since Draft 1. The notion has also been problematic to many librarians since Draft 1. (For an overview of the discussion, see Ian Beilin’s recent Lead Pipe article. For an earlier, in-depth critique, read Lane Wilkinson’s take on the topic.) I’d summarize my own position as a big yes to conceptual teaching, big reservations towards threshold concepts.

In the face of questioning and opposition, the Task Force did in fact soften the language around the threshold concepts in subsequent drafts – the original six threshold concepts became “frames” in Draft 2, for example, though each frame still contained a threshold concept. When I recently came to take stock of the final approved version of the Framework, I discovered the language was softened even further. Each frame, for example, now contains “a concept central to information literacy” (p. 2) rather than a “threshold concept.”

I also discovered this statement:

At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole. These conceptual understandings are informed by the work of Wiggins and McTighe, which focuses on essential concepts and questions in developing curricula, and on threshold concepts. (p. 2) [I’m pretty sure that should read “informed … BY threshold concepts.”]

But wait, what? Conceptual understandings are now at the heart of the Framework? And when did the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) become a second major influence on the Framework, along with threshold concepts? Did I miss something? (Actually, yes, because it turns out the the changes occurred in the November 2014 draft and and I just didn’t notice. I blame a combination of busyness and Framework fatigue.) Was there any discussion of this late addition? Shouldn’t there be? After all, the threshold concepts were talked nearly to death.

Wiggins and McTighe’s book, Understanding by Design, focuses on the importance of drawing on core concepts or “big ideas” in order to teach for understanding. I suspect it’s been brought into the Framework at least partly in order to bolster the argument for teaching with threshold concepts (that’s how I see its use in the ACRLog post quoted above), though possibly also to signal the usefulness of their design approach in implementing the Framework. But are Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas” actually the same as threshold concepts? Do all our big ideas really need to be threshold concepts? What do Wiggins and McTighe have to say to us now that they’ve been placed in our Framework?

To start with, here are a few things they say about big ideas:

  • “A big idea is a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills” (p. 5).
  • “Individual lessons are simply too short to allow for in-depth development of big ideas, explorations of essential questions, and authentic applications” (p. 8).
  • “Teaching for understanding must successfully predict potential misunderstandings and rough spots in learning if it is to be effective. Central to the design approach we propose is that we need to design lessons and assessments that anticipate, evoke and overcome the most likely student misconceptions” (p. 10).
  • “Teaching for understanding requires the learner to rethink what appeared settled or obvious” (p. 11).

These are all things that could be/probably have been said about threshold concepts. Here’s the thing though: in 370 pages, Wiggins and McTighe never once mention threshold concepts.

So the first big takeaway is that we can engage in conceptual teaching — we can teach with big ideas, we can address students’ stuck places, we can challenge students’ assumptions — without having to invoke threshold concepts. There are many librarians who have already been arguing this, and now their argument is bolstered by a work whose importance has already been recognized in the Framework. I don’t want to suggest that we need the Framework’s “permission” to teach without threshold concepts. At the same time, it means something to have the ACRL’s main pedagogical document acknowledge, if indirectly, that threshold concepts are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of conceptual teaching.

A second big takeaway is that if we’re wondering how to implement the Framework, we could do a lot worse than consult Wiggins and McTighe. In fact their design approach is likely to be very helpful in redesigning our instruction, learning outcomes and assessment around our big ideas. There’s a lot in their book to digest, and I’m only going to point out a few things that struck me.

  • Wiggins and McTighe connect their big ideas to core tasks, which is likely to be helpful as we connect the skills we still need to teach to the ideas in the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to essential questions that get students thinking about the big ideas. Here’s a Faculty Focus article that provides more information. And here’s Nicole Pagowsky with examples of essential questions related to the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to a purpose, such as understanding or connecting to other concepts. I occasionally get the sense in discussions around implementing the Framework that the purpose is to teach the frames. “How can we teach scholarship as conversation?” for example. Shouldn’t we also be thinking past learning the concepts to what students can do with the concepts? Maybe the scholarly conversation metaphor could help students think about their own writing (as in “They say/I say”). Maybe it could help them think about disciplinary discourses, or the effect of different academic cultures, paradigms and epistemologies on the conversation, or the role of social media in the scholarly conversation, or the effect of power relationships and gatekeeping on the conversation….

spiralA third takeaway (it’s part of design but worth pulling out on its own) is the idea that students will need to revisit the big ideas, not just over the course of a class but over the course of their curriculum, each time deepening their understanding of the ideas. This is the concept of the spiral curriculum (which Wiggins and McTighe explicitly invoke) advocated by John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. So elementary students can learn about information literacy at a level appropriate to them.  They can be taught to use Creative Commons licensed images. Students will spiral back to information literacy instruction at various points in their academic life, hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts each time. So early undergraduates can begin to learn about the scholarly conversation but their understanding will inevitably be limited because they just haven’t seen very much of it yet. Graduate students, who have begun to identify as scholars, who need to map who is talking to whom for their lit reviews, who want to figure out their own niche, will have a much richer conception of the scholarly conversation.

The spiral curriculum is a very different metaphor than the threshold that’s crossed once. I think it’s the more useful metaphor. While it doesn’t address all the diversity of our learners, it does take into account students’ growing knowledge, experience and abilities over their college years.

My fourth big takeaway comes out of Wiggins and McTighe’s assertion that “answering the “why?” and “so what?” questions … is the essence of understanding by design…. Without such explicit and transparent priorities, many students find day-to-day work confusing and frustrating”(p. 15-6). This reminds me of the challenge in a great Chronicle of Higher Education article (unfortunately paywalled) that I still go back to: “I am asking instructors to see the two questions that the new epistemology emblazons across the front of every classroom — ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ — and then to adjust their teaching accordingly” (Clydesdale, 2009).

The Framework is a pedagogical document meant for librarians. Obviously (to us) it contains big and important ideas. But it’s sadly lacking in answers to the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. In much of our teaching, the answer to “so what?” has been “this will help you with your assignment.” But if we’re teaching with big ideas we need a bigger answer. Something along the lines of: “You need to be able to use information to learn, now and after you graduate. This involves ways of thinking as well as skills…. Here’s how this core concept will help you….” Okay, this needs work!

To go back to my beginning: after so many months of discussion, we all “know” that threshold concepts are at the heart of the Framework. But if we look at the final version of the Framework with fresh eyes, we can see they’ve been moved to the side, at least in part, opening new possibilities for the ways we teach with big ideas. I suggest we seize those possibilities and run with them.

Clydesdale, T. (2009). Wake up and smell the new epistemology. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 (20).

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. 2nd expanded ed. Alexandria,, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

What’s the Matter with Threshold Concepts?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Lori Townsend, Learning Services Coordinator at the University of New Mexico; Silvia Lu, Reference and Social Media Librarian and Assistant Professor, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY; Amy R. Hofer, Coordinator, Statewide Open Education Library Services, Linn-Benton Community College; and Korey Brunetti, Librarian at City College of San Francisco.

Recent conversations about ACRL’s draft Framework have raised questions about both the theoretical value of threshold concepts and their usefulness as applied to information literacy instruction. This post responds to some of the arguments against threshold concepts and clarifies why the authors believe that the model can be a productive way to approach information literacy instruction.

Threshold concepts aren’t based on current research about learning
Au contraire: threshold concepts are grounded in research on teaching and learning. The theory initially developed from qualitative research undertaken by education faculty as a part of the Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses project in the UK. The references for Meyer and Land’s initial series of papers on threshold concepts represent a well-rounded list of important thinkers in education.

That said, we understand why some might see threshold concepts as “old wine in new bottles” (as Glynnis Cousin puts it) (1). If you have a background in educational theory, threshold concepts may seem like a repackaging of other theories. Threshold concepts might even be understood as a shortcut through the theory thicket for those who don’t possess an advanced degree in education.

It’s also helpful to note that the threshold concept model works well when used alongside other pedagogical approaches. To provide just one excellent example, Lundstrom, Fagerheim, and Benson (2) used threshold concepts in combination with Decoding the Disciplines and backward design as a frame to revise learning outcomes for information literacy in composition courses.

Everything is a threshold concept
Another common objection has to do with the fuzziness of Meyer and Land’s definitional criteria (transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome) and the hedging language Meyer and Land use to articulate the criteria (probably, possibly, potentially). We see the use of these qualifiers as Meyer and Land’s way of saying: just because a proposed threshold concept doesn’t meet X criterion, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a threshold concept. Along these lines, Wiggins and McTighe’s work is highly respected as a now-standard approach to curriculum design, but if you look at the chapter on “big ideas” in their classic work Understanding by Design, you’ll see similarly fuzzy, but still useful, language.

However, regarding these fuzzy definitional criteria, some have asked “How can probable characteristics be defining characteristics?” (3) Let’s look at a furry example: dogs. Do dogs bark? Do all barks sound the same? Are there dogs that don’t bark? Yet somehow, we can still identify dogs as dogs for practical purposes. Likewise, instructors can still identify threshold concepts because we possess professional and disciplinary expertise.

Arguing for the existence of threshold concepts that meet none of the definitional criteria is a rhetorical device, not a practical concern. Librarians are just not going to waste precious instructional time on nonsensical learning objectives that aren’t real teaching content.

Threshold concepts are unproven
Threshold concepts are an emerging theory. However, many disciplines have used them to effectively re-think curricula, including Computer Science and Economics. We maintain that much of the value of threshold concepts lies in encouraging instructors to re-engage with and re-examine teaching content. They are a wonderful catalyst to spark discussion among colleagues and encourage deep and creative thinking about instruction.

Nevertheless, some librarians are bothered by an approach that isn’t supported by a certain kind of evidence. There are many possible pedagogical approaches out there and we don’t have a stake in people adopting threshold concepts if the model doesn’t work for them. At the same time we can also ask, how much of what librarians do effectively in the classroom is supported by positivist proof?

To take one example, we don’t need a double-blind study to know that the Cephalonian method works in our classes. We know it works because students who came in slouching and checking their email are paying attention, sitting up straight, and asking their own questions. This is a form of evidence. Other kinds of evidence are forthcoming for threshold concepts (for example, we are slowly writing up the results of a Delphi study on threshold concepts for information literacy), but that does not mean we cannot use them now to improve our teaching.

Threshold concepts don’t address skill development
We want our students to demonstrate new skills and abilities based on our instruction. Which is to say, we want them to learn. Threshold concepts help us think about where students may encounter stumbling blocks in understanding difficult or transformative concepts that underlie skill development. Wiggins and McTighe’s big ideas share a similar aim:

What we are claiming, based on both common sense and the research in cognition, is that no skill can be integrated into a powerful repertoire unless the learner understands the big ideas related to using the skill wisely. (4)

We find it nearly impossible to teach a skill-based learning objective effectively if we don’t have a firm grasp on why it’s important because of its connection to an overarching concept. Students can smell busywork a mile away. And transferrable skills are the ones anchored in conceptual understanding.

Threshold concepts ignore the diversity of human experience
Threshold concepts have been characterized as monolithic dictates that impose one linear path to one correct understanding. In fact, threshold concepts leave room for variability for instructors as well as for learners

In applying the anthropological concept of liminality to learning, Meyer and Land imagine and explore a liminal space that learners pass through in the process of crossing a threshold. They write about how individuals will move through this liminal space in different ways, spend more or less time there, and experience affective dimensions of learning there. (5) As Silvia’s diagram below shows, some people encounter a learning threshold and walk right across; others will take a few steps forward and a few steps back before crossing; others will sit down in one spot for weeks when the threshold comes into view.

Learners do not start a course in the same place, nor do they learn at the same pace.

On the other hand, to suggest that student experiences are so fundamentally different that there are no common points of confusion is anathema to the possibility of curricular design. Moreover, what then would be the point of teaching and learning in communities? We can focus our teaching efforts by pinpointing the places where students are most likely to get stuck, without ignoring their differences.

Threshold concepts are hegemonic
Threshold concepts are not tools of oppression. Or at least, they may be so, but only to the extent that an individual practitioner using threshold concepts is oppressive.

Threshold concepts expose the tacit knowledge that we expect our students to absorb along with our stated learning objectives. This approach forces us to consider the implications of asking students to look through our disciplinary lens. For example, if a student wants to search the catalog using the keyword “drag queens,” you can imagine how well the Library of Congress subject headings reflect the current thinking on respectful ways to talk about this topic. Ignoring such an issue would implicitly validate the problematic subject terms. It is paramount to acknowledge the language problem and explain that the subject terms reflect the point of view of a certain group of people. We run into trouble when we don’t acknowledge our particular lens and act as if it’s the natural way to see the world.

Our disciplinary lens has scratches, deformed areas, and blind spots — all rich fodder for teaching and exploration — and yet it still offers something of value to our students. Admitting that we are asking to students to risk their identity and take a leap of faith with us as teachers is only being honest.

Threshold concepts require us to agree on all the things
Do we all agree on what constitutes our disciplinary content? Does every discipline share a unified body of knowledge? Threshold concepts don’t claim so. However, we all make choices when teaching. If you consider your content with the threshold concepts criteria in mind, it helps identify some things that might prove problematic for students and stall their learning, yet that are needed in order to move forward in their understanding.

Individual subject experts will have differing perspectives on their disciplines and will thus choose to teach different content, but there are transformative, irreversible, troublesome, and integrative moments along many strands of knowledge. Your curriculum doesn’t have to be identical to mine for both of them to include threshold concepts that challenge our students and enlarge their perspectives.

In conclusion
We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

Nobody asserts that the frames are The Only Frames forever and ever. So please, engage with them. Think of new ones. Rewrite them to fit your context and your students. Think hard about what you teach and how you teach it. We have interesting, transformative, transferrable content to teach and it is grounded in our own disciplinary area — threshold concepts or no.

And finally, it’s useful to think of threshold concepts as a model for looking at the content we teach in the context of how learning works. “…(A)ll models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be not to be useful.” (6) We’re less interested in breaking down the model and examining its component parts exhaustively than in trying it out and seeing if it’s useful. And then maybe tweaking it. For us, despite its flaws, the threshold concepts model continues to be useful. Your mileage may vary.



  1. Cousin, G. (2008). Threshold concepts: Old wine in new bottles or a new form of transactional curriculum inquiry? In R. Land, J. Meyer, & J. Smith, (Eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
  2. Lundstrom, K., Fagerheim, B.A., & Benson, E. (2014). Librarians and instructors developing student learning outcomes: Using frameworks to lead the process. Reference Services Review, 42(3).
  3. Wilkinson, L. (2014, June 19). The problem with threshold concepts [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/the-problem-with-threshold-concepts/.
  4. Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  5. Meyer, J.H.F., and Land, R. (2008) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (5): Dynamics of assessment. 2nd International Conference on Threshold Concepts, Threshold Concepts: From Theory to Practice, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
  6. Box, G. E. P., & Draper, N. R. (1987). Empirical model-building and response surfaces. New York: Wiley, p. 74.