There Is A Difference Between Information And Learning

I came across this item in the Chronicle’s Wired Blog. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said he is worried about what he called an emerging “Home Depot approach to education,” in which there is “no distinction made between information and learning“. Gregorian said this yesterday as part of his remarks as the keynote presenter at the Higher Education Leadership Forum, a two-day event sponsored by The Chronicle and Gartner, a technology-consulting firm. This remark really resonated with me because it hits right on the head a nail that is being driven into the long tradition of user education within academic librarianship. I have seen more than one instance, in print and at conferences, of some of our colleagues suggesting that we are wasting our time with information literacy. They claim that in a Google universe our students no longer have the patience or need to learn how to conduct research, and that we do a disservice to them when we attempt to raise the quality of their research through user education. Doing so, we are told, simply alienates them and drives them farther away from libraries. Instead, we are told, we should just give them the information they need so that they can get on with their writing. I think that philosophy of academic librarianship is exactly what Gregorian would describe as the “Home Depot” approach to education. Let’s not forget why we entered this profession. We need to continue to make the distinction between learning and just supplying information.

More on Purdue University and the “Learning Library”

Earlier, we noted the announcement of the creation of an Endowed Chair in Information Literacy at Purdue University. Today, the Career section in the Chronicle notes the opening of a new administrative position in the Purdue University Libraries with the search for an Associate Dean for Learning. Here (in good “Google” fashion) is a snippet from the posting:

“The Purdue University Libraries have embarked upon a dynamic new role within the University, emphasizing a closer integration of the Libraries into the academic mission of Purdue. An administrative re-structuring of the Libraries supports this new direction through the creation of this position, Associate Dean for Learning . . . . Greater emphasis is being placed on advancing the Libraries’ reference and information literacy instruction program, using multiple approaches (in-person and virtual, one-on-one and classroom settings) to integrate active learning throughout the University curriculum along with expanding and deepening the research/discovery efforts of the Libraries’ faculty. http://www.lib.purdue.edu/

As someone with an interest in instruction who has served as an AD for Public Services, I have watched the recent appearance of learning-centered administrative positions with great interest (see also the ongoing search for an Associate University Librarian for Educational Initiatives at Berkeley). To me, the creation of such positions (if they truly are focused on articulating and enhancing the role of the academic library as an instructional center on campus) suggests a level of recognition for the teaching role that is new and (for people like me) very exciting. What do people think when they see these positions being created: new focus for the profession, or old wine in new bottles?

And, while a 2-time degree-holder from Indiana University like me is hard-pressed to say it, kudos to Purdue for pushing the envelope and getting us to ask real questions about what it means to integrate a commitment to teaching and learning (in the libraries and across campus) into the core mission of the academic library, as represented by the commitment of human resources and representation at the highest administrative levels.

Evolving Discourse Communities

An article that has been discussed recently on the ILI-L discussion list (sponsored by the Instruction Section of ACRL) is well worth reading. “Librarians as Disciplinary Discourse Mediators: Using Genre Theory to Move Toward Critical Information Literacy” by Michelle Holschuh Simmons (published in portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5.3: 297-311) shifts the focus in information literacy efforts from finding and using information to the interpretive work of understanding both the context of the texts students use and the disciplinary conventions that shape it. Simmons argues that librarians are uniquely situated as mediators among disciplinary discourses and that by helping students understand the rhetorical underpinnings of texts we will help them “see that information is constructed and contested not monolithic and apolitical.” It’s well worth a look, since we frequently stumble when it comes to the aspects of information literacy that involve evaluation and understanding the ethical, economic, and social issues surrounding information called for in the IL Standards. This article is not available free online but can be found in some libraries through Project Muse.

I admit I thought of this article when reading a story in today’s Inside Higher Education. In “Too Much Information?” Scott Jaschik raises the issue of faculty members blogging before they have tenure. In part, this is really a genre question: will scholars take blogging seriously as a form of expression? how do blogs blend otherwise distinct genres – opinion, scholarship, personal narrative? is blogging is invading the space previously owned by journalists and public intellectuals, where speech is limited to those who hold the proper credentials? The more our genres morph and reinvent themselves, and as new kinds of discourse communities arise, the more agile we all need to focus information literacy on the critical work involved.

Podcasts, Clickers, and Wi-Fi, Oh My!

Seems there has been more attention on teaching with technology just recently. If you consider the article and colloquy from the recent Chronicle of Higher Education that discussed the Millennial Generation and a new article in this week’s U.S. News & World Report, that’s two high profile pieces on how the needs of learners are changing, and how higher education is experimenting with technology as a means of revolutionizing how students learn. If your campus is like mine, then faculty are likely divided on both issues related to learners and the impact technology has on their learning process. Many are firm advocates and do all they can to push technology to its limits. Others are more suspect and would like to see concrete evidence that technology improves learning. And of course the majority are somewhere in the middle, dabbling with technology and implementing changes to their teaching methods a small step at a time. I’m a firm believer that technology has a place in the classroom, and students are increasingly expecting to find it being used. The divide tends to occur when we debate the extent to which technology should be used, and whether or not it truly helps to enhance student learning. While it’s important to pay attention to changing demographics (e.g., Millennials) and the ways in which technology might better fit changing student expectations, one needs to be cautious about buying the argument that learning needs to change right now and dramatically so. Based on what I’ve learned in the instructional technology courses I’ve taken at my institution, there is an entire spectrum of learning methods and media that we have at our disposal in creating a memorable learning experience for students. Some involve technology and others do not (i.e., lecture and discussion still have their place). Sometimes group learning is best, and at other times individual effort is more effective. The U.S. News article reflects that segment among both faculty and students who believe that technology, when used inappropriately or simply because it is there, can hurt learning more than it may help. We’ve all heard stories on our own campuses about students who will explode if they have to sit through one more set of PowerPoint slides (and you’ve surely seem them printing out endless pages of those slides that are now embedded in course texts and courseware sites). Our role as teaching librarians (or “blended librarians” as I like to say) is to become familiar with all the teaching tools and techniques at our disposal – just as we want our user communities to be aware of all the information databases and retrieval systems at their disposal – and to work at using them wisely to help students achieve learning outcomes. We also need to help our faculty do the same when it comes to library technology. Let’s remember that in addition to podcasts, tablet PCs, discussion boards, smartboards, clickers, and all the rest, that library databases have a place in the universe of classroom learning technologies. You won’t seem them mentioned in most mainstream articles about teaching and learning technologies. It’s our job to make sure students and faculty and integrating them into what happens in the classroom.

How Will An Endowed Chair In Information Literacy Help?

Purdue University announced that it will create the first endowed chair in information literacy in the nation, as a result of a generous $2.5 million gift. While I applaud this pioneering development, as it will certainly promote information literacy at Purdue and perhaps raise the profile of information literacy beyond their campus, I have to question it as well. In part, the holder of the chair will lead research projects into information literacy. Nice, but in the last 20 years perhaps 5,000 articles or more have been written about information literacy, not to mention loads of presentations, so why create a research position of this sort. I’d be far more impressed if Purdue announced that it was funding programs to allow faculty members to commit to collaborating with their librarians to take full responsibility for teaching students to become information literate. That’s what we need in higher education – real action to establish faculty-led and librarian supported information literacy – not more research by and for librarians. Perhaps they’ll use some of the funds for programs directed at faculty, which I would encourage and welcome. Who knows, it might result in some resources and techniques that could be replicated elsewhere.