Tag Archives: information literacy

Dumber Students Or Out Of Touch Academics

Are students getting dumber or are the academics working with them just getting more out of touch with those they teach? That debate has been hanging around for a while and now the noise level is increasing by more than a few decibles. I first wrote about this back in January 2006 when I discussed Mark Bauerlein’s observations about intellectually disengaged students. Even further back than that I published an essay in the Chronicle (2/4/04) called “The Infodiet” in which I pointed to the failings of the library profession’s desire to “googleize” search and retrieval systems, and questioned if our role as library educators wasn’t instead to help students learn effective research methods and critical thinking – and refusing to fall for the “good enough” mentality when it comes to research.

Bauerlein went on to write The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). This book and others were profiled in an article titled “On Stupidity about several recent books that question the thinking ability of today’s students. The article’s author, Thomas Benton, shares his own observations that point to an increase in ignorance among his students. Just recently Benton published a follow-up essay in which he focuses on strategies that educators can use to help students become more savvy learners and critical thinkers. I was interested to see that among his greatest concerns for this generation of students is their:

difficulty following or making extended analytical arguments. In particular, they tend to use easily obtained, superficial, and unreliable online sources as a way of satisfying minimal requirements for citations rather than seeking more authoritative sources in the library and online. Without much evidence at their disposal, they tend to fall back on their feelings, which are personal and, they think, beyond questioning.

On the other hand, Benton thinks Bauerlein and those who see a generation of stupider students are not exactly correct, and questions if it isn’t the teacher who needs to change. He writes:

I am still suspicious of studies that proclaim the inferiority of the rising generation. We’ve all been the young whippersnappers at some point, frightening our elders, and many of us are, no doubt, destined to become grumpy old nostalgics in turn. As a teacher, I would prefer to think my students are the ones with the most promise; they are attuned to what is happening in the culture, even if they still have much to learn.

In this follow up Benton’s goal is to share ideas on how the current generation of faculty can do a better job of connecting with and teaching the millennial generation. While Benton agrees to an extent with those who say faculty do need to be more in tune with the way their students learn and how it is defined by their digital upbringing, he says that the bottom line is students still have to learn.

I do appreciate that he believes using the library, reading books and doing thoughtful research can help students to be more knowledgeable. He advocates that faculty should be “Getting students into the library and getting real books into their hands” and “Teaching them how to evaluate the credibility of sources: why Wikipedia, though useful, is less reliable than, say, the Dictionary of American Biography.” It would be even better if Benton had urged faculty to collaborate with their librarian colleagues to help students learn these skills, but I’m hopeful that just having faculty read this advice will encourage them to seek out librarians who can help them to help their students become better researchers, readers and writers.

If you are interested in this issue and would like an opportunity to engage in a conversation about it with your colleagues you may want to join in a free webcast event I’ll be co-hosting with my colleague John Shank at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:00 pm EST. I’m pleased that Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University, will be our guest to lead the discussion. He has written some excellent essays and a book related to the topic. Here is a description of the webcast “Dumbest Younger Generation or Clueless Older Educators: What Librarians Can Do To Promote Student Excellence” :

A wave of books and articles, including Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, are calling attention to the declining analytical skills of college students. They read far less. They seem incapable of critical thought and debate. They take the research path of least resistance. And perhaps worst of all, they seem above constructive criticism. Is digital technology at the root of the dumber generation or is technology simply a convenient scapegoat? Some technology advocates, such as Marc Prensky, suggest that the students are fine, and that the educators are the ones who need to change their ways. Join your colleagues for a discussion of these issues at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:00 pm eastern time. We will be joined by Mark Herring who will frame the issues and share his thoughts about why librarians should be concerned about them – and what we can do to make a difference.

If you are already a member of the community go here to register. If not, go here to join – and then register. I hope you will join in the conversation.

Data Shows Information Literacy Has Far To Go

For all the time this profession has put into promoting the information literacy concept, I was surprised that data from the National Center for Educational Statistic’s report Academic Libraries 2006 showed an underwhelming lack of penetration into or acceptance by academic institutions. Table 13 has data for the percentage of academic institutions reporting information literacy activities. There are five indicators of information literacy activity. They are:

1. defined information literacy or information literate student
2. incorporated information literacy into institution’s mission
3. incorporated information literacy into institution’s strategic plan
4. has institution-wide committee to implement strategic plan for information literacy
5. strategic plan formally recognizes the library’s role in information literacy instruction

First, here at the corresponding percentages for each of those five items:

1. 48.4
2. 34.3
3. 30.4
4. 17.6
5. 24.8

After all these years of researching it, writing about it, presenting about it, discussing it and selling the information literacy concept to our institutions do these numbers seem as low to you as they do to me? The fourth one is especially surprising. Do our faculty colleagues and academic administrators find information literacy of so little importance that they are unable to justify allocating one committee in the governance structure to it? Apparently so. You might argue that an institution doesn’t need an official committee to develop an information literacy initiative, but I would counter that it goes a long way toward legitimizing it and paving the way for better collaboration with faculty. Perhaps it is the way the question is worded. It seems to suggest you should only answer “yes” if the committee is implementing a strategic plan goal, and perhaps more institutions have information literacy committees and task forces, but are in no way related to a strategic plan.

I was also surprised to learn that smaller institutions, mostly likely teaching and learning-focused colleges, reported less activity than larger institutions. So whereas only 31 percent of small colleges (less than 1,500 FTE) had incorporated IL into the mission, at insitutions with over 5,000 FTE it was 41 percent. I would have expected that smaller institutions that are more focused on learning would be the ones to move more quickly and fully into integrating information literacy into the curriculum. Masters I and II institutions appear to consistenly have the highest numbers of activity. While the best results come from the activity of defining information literacy or an information literate student, I can’t say I’m exactly sure what that means. Where is it defined? Does anyone else know about it? Maybe this report needs some better questions.

I’d like to think that with all the hard work academic librarians and their organizations have put into information literacy initiatives that we’d be doing better by now. It is possible that in 2008, as opposed to 2006, we are doing much better, and that the numbers for these indicators are higher now as a result. That said, these numbers paint a somewhat bleak picture that should give some cause for concern. Or are these numbers meaningless for your institution because there is already a thriving information literacy initiative in place, regardless of committees or strategic plan mentions. What these numbers might suggest in the long run is that NCES needs to do a better job of asking the right questions so we can get a realistic picture of the penetration rate of informaton literacy initiatives and programming at U.S. colleges and universities.

Since we’re on the topic of information literacy I’m going to leave you with some words of wisdom from a faculty member who gave a talk titled “Scholars Perspective: Impact of Digitized Collections on Learning and Teaching“. It is a paper presented by David Watt, a faculty member in the Temple University History Department, at the June 4, 2008 RLG Programs Symposium. Here’s an excerpt that provides some advice for librarians on communicating with faculty about information literacy. I think you’ll find it worthwhile reading:

It is also clearly the case that many of Temple’s faculty are deeply resistant to making “informational literacy” a major component of their courses. It is not a category that makes much sense to many Temple professors. To many of them, it sounds like the kind of phrase that educational bureaucrats who don’t do much teaching or research love to throw around. For many of them, it raises the specter of universities built around “assessing student learning outcomes.” So, there is the bad news: we are living in a world in which there is good reason to believe that students really do need to work on their informational literacy and in which faculty seem resistant to helping them do so. Here is the good news: our experiences at Temple suggest that this is a challenge that can sometimes be easily negotiated. All one has to do, some of us at Temple are coming to believe, is stop preaching to faculty about the need for them to take an interest in informational literacy and, instead, start asking faculty about their hopes for their students.

As soon as one begins to do that—as soon as one begins asking historians, for example, about their hopes—one begins to get answers such as the following:

“I want them to understand that they should read all primary sources with a certain amount of skepticism and that they should be even more skeptical when they are reading secondary works.”

“I want them to be able to distinguish between relatively reliable primary sources and ones that are less reliable.”

Now, none of the faculty responses to the question about their hopes for their students contains the magic phrase “informational literacy.” But that is not really the point, is it?

Santa, The Easter Bunny And The Information Literacy Class

Here’s my quiz question for you. What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and an information literacy class all have in common? That’s right. They are all a figment of your imagination.

If you still believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny, well go right ahead. I don’t see any harm in it. But let me argue that there is no such thing as an information literacy class, and that futhermore, we do ourselves a disservice when using that terminology. “Information literacy class” implies that when students walk out the door they are information literate. After all, the students just sat through an academic librarian’s 50 to 90 minutes of information literacy instruction, so therefore they must now be information literate. Sounds kind of ridiculous doesn’t it. So why are so many academic librarians referring to their instruction time with students as information literacy classes? Does it sound more authoritative? Will it fool the accreditors? I just don’t get it, and this is about more than quibbling over semantics.

Here’s the disservice part. No student becomes information literate in a single class or a few classes or even a semester of exposure to information literacy classes. When we promote what is really a single instruction event to faculty as an information literacy class we perpetuate the myth that students can become information literate in a single class. It’s then no surprise to hear faculty asking why librarians need to come to the sophomore writing courses. “But you gave them your information literacy class when they took the freshman introduction to writing seminar. They’re information literate now, right.”

Wrong. Information literacy is a program or initiative created and implemented by a team of academic librarians in collaboration with faculty and administrators. Whether you design it to be compartmentalized or distributed, it is intended to be tiered and delivered across the curriculum. There should be stated outcomes and a plan for assessing whether those outcomes are achieved. And information literacy should be designed to create long-term change in the affective domain. That is the learning domain where values are shaped over many years. Value systems are unchanged in the short term, and certainly not in a single class. Learning experts tell us that creating a shift in a student’s value system is a long-term proposition. Veteran information literacy librarians know it can take years for undergraduates to internalize those qualities that define being information literate. So let’s not delude ourselves or anyone on our campuses that there is such a thing as an information literacy class.

Call those classes what they are – library instruction sessions – research instruction sessions – or research skills sessions. But do make it clear to your faculty and administrators that the sessions are where the rubber of your information literacy initiative meets the road. It is within those sessions that specific articulated objectives, each connected in some small way to a much larger outcome, help students develop the research skills and values that over time and in a cumulative fashion will have them leaving your institution as information literate lifelong learners.

The information literacy class? It’s time we get a grip on reality and realize it doesn’t exist.

You Won’t Discover Much About Academic Librarians In This Discovery Tool

I’m a big fan of EDUCAUSE publications. From the regular magazines such as EDUCAUSE Quarterly and EDUCAUSE Review, to the many white papers, and the Seven Things You Need to Know series, I think EDUCAUSE has radically raised the bar for what an association can accomplish with its publications. I’m sure ACRL pays attention to this, and is seeking to raise its bar as well. So I was somewhat disappointed when I examined the just released ELI Discovery Tool: Net Generation Workshop Guide. Here is the description:

The ELI Discovery Tool: Net Generation Workshop Guide is designed as an action-oriented, modifiable resource for faculty development and other instructional uses. We have focused on the Net Generation because serves as a starting point for many other discussions about active learning, emerging technologies, information fluency, learning space design, and assessment.

Sounds interesting, right. Here’s a resource I can use to design faculty development programs. The guide has 9 different educational units that can be offered individually or as a group. Each module is designed to produce a two-hour workshop. So far it’s all good. But things really fell flat when I examined the module on information literacy (see unit 8). I will give kudos to EDUCAUSE for at least including it in a learning guide geared to help faculty understand the millennial generation. If nothing else it might help to create some awareness among our faculty.

But reading this guide you wouldn’t know that librarians had anything to do with information literacy programming. There isn’t a single mention of the word “librarian” and there is no suggested activity that involves librarians. I know that academic librarians don’t own information literacy, but at a minimum couldn’t the “follow-up” section even suggest something like “talk to your campus librarians about developing an information literacy initiative” or “find out what your campus librarians are doing to help students develop better research skills”. And while I have great respect for Diana Oblinger, to look at the resources listed in the guide you’d think she was the only person who ever authored a publication about information literacy – not even a link to ACRL’s information literacy resource page?

I know that ACRL has a program to organize its effort to reach out to other associations to develop joint efforts to promote the goals of the association. I know our ACRL colleagues can’t be aware of everything that’s happening at its partner associations, but did something fall through the cracks here? I can imagine few things more central to ACRL’s mission than an EDUCAUSE publication designed to educate faculty about information literacy. It seems there were some opportunities for inter-association communication here, but it looks like that just didn’t happen in this case. I hope that the next time EDUCAUSE is developing educational or programmatic materials about information literacy or any issues in which ACRL has a vested interest some cooperative interaction will be a part of the process.