IL Course Credit Does Not Equal Credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Wonder Students Think It’s A Waste Of Time

Would you voluntarily submit to being instructed about a topic where you already consider yourself to qualify as an expert in that subject matter? If you did – or were forced to – you would probably find it incredibly boring or tune it out all together. Well, a new report may help to explain why some students react this way to the academic library’s information literacy education program. The annual ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology is a good indicator of the state of college students’ application of technology. The report provides insight into our students technology tools and their skill and comfort levels with different types of technology, and their preferences for learning technologies. The 2008 Study contains information of interest to academic librarians.

There’s a lot to learn from this document. For example, despite claims that students seeking information go everywhere but the library website, the ECAR Study suggests that’s not the case. In fact, there were three technologies that were most frequently used by many respondents. Two were spreadsheets and presentation software. The third was the library website. An average of 68% of students reported accessing the library website during the semester. That sounds encouraging, but without knowing more about what they are accessing the library website for I would withhold my excitement. Are we talking about just using the library catalog? Does that mean just going to the library home page to click on a link to a database? At what level of engagement are the students using the library’s website? Table 4-4 on page 47 tells us what Internet and technology activity in which students report they are engaged. Social networking sites and course management systems are heavily used (in the 80% range), contributing to blogs and wikis is less popular (in the 30% range) and virtual world activity is still quite low at only an 8% participation rate. That may help us make better sense of how we can get the most out of “being where the students are”.

In 2007 I wrote an article about what I called IAKT – I Already Know This – Syndrome [see: Stop IAKT Syndrome with Student Live Search Demos. Reference Services Review 35(1): 98-108, 2007.] At the time my IAKT theory was based mostly on my own observations and other anecdotal evidence. Now this ECAR report suggests there’s more to IAKT Syndrome than I thought. Here’s why. Students were asked to rate themselves when it comes to having the ability to search the Internet effectively and efficiently. I was not surprised to read that 80% of students stated they were effective and efficient Internet searchers. Almost half (46%) rate themselves very skilled and another third rate themselves as experts. These results held up through all age, gender and major groups. Now, does any librarian who has recently led an instruction session agree with this? When you see students working on search exercises in your instruction sessions would you agree that 80% of them are effective and efficient. They are if you ask them to find a list of green vegetables. But put their own research assignment in front of them and ask them to find a few scholarly articles – they’re not quite as good at that. As the report states:

Many educators believe that students’ perceptions about their net savviness are questionable. It is a do-it-yourself approach to information literacy; students rely on peers rather than library staff or faculty. And students may have excessive confidence because they are unaware of the complexities involved.

Well put! So is it any wonder that students tune out library instruction – if they attend these sessions at all. If they think they are already an expert or searching at a very skilled level why bother listening to some librarian drone on about boolean search operators. So what do we do about that? Obviously we should do all we can to get the students activated and involved in their own learning, make learning how to research as practice based as possible, and as I advocated in my IAKT article, challenge the students by having them share their search “expertise” with their fellow students. I’m not going to go on about what to do as you can read the vast number of articles in which academic librarians have shared their best techniques for engaged student instruction. In fact, figure 5-4 on page 66 reports that 80% of students like to learn with technology by running Internet searches or through programs they can control (video games, simulations, etc.). Great! That tells us something about the way they like to learn – lots of hands-on involvement. Now if we can just convince them that what we have to share is a technology worth learning.

I will just add that, as always, it’s crucial to get faculty involved. Surely they can’t believe that 80% of their students are great online researchers, and maybe we ought to share these ECAR results with them. They might just thank us for giving them a laugh. But once the laughter subsides let’s get down to brass tacks and collaboratively figure out how to, as the quote above suggests, help our students truly master the inherent complexities of academic research.

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.