Information Literacy Instruction in Transition

Cathie Leblanc invited Anne Jung Matthews and I to attend the Tackling a Wicked Problem track of yesterday’s CPLC event to help us understand what the new course looked like as we contemplate the role of librarians in TWP.  (Thanks, Cathie!)  I do have a lot of new ideas from the session (and some of them even relate to those stated goals 😉 )  I get the sense that a lot of the ideas that fired me up at ATI are very present in TWP: student agency and voice, emphasis on the processes rather than an end product, reflection and metacognition.  Awesome! 

But it was also pretty clear to me that there is so much going on in that class that, even though it is four credits, there is not room for a whole bunch of information literacy.  And if we want to truly give students control over the direction of the course, it won’t do to tell them that they have to cover these five tenets of information literacy while they’re at it.

I’m comfortable letting go of my earlier ideas of what information literacy topics might have been part of FYS and accepting that depending on where each section of students chooses to go, there may or may not be a role for librarians in TWP.  (Although, there are some info lit components integrated into the OER for the course, more on that in a minute.) 

But this opens up for me a bigger question about what is the librarians’ responsibility to equip students with the tools and skills they need to understand the info environment they swim in, not just within TWP, but throughout their time here.  Walking away from my earlier ideas about trying to cram a whole bunch of info lit into the FYS (as seriously flawed as that system was, and make no mistake, it was) before there is any other coordinated plan for addressing it elsewhere makes me feel weird. 

Being on board with taking part in TWP only in an as needed basis (which I am), also means I have to be ok with removing, for the time being at least, the one formalized, librarian-led component from the curriculum.  By agreeing to this, am I unintentionally suggesting that my role as an instructor isn’t needed and that uniformity of info lit curriculum isn’t a priority?  By brain immediately rebels at both of these, which almost certainly means I need to slow down and look at them closely.

Uncomfortable Question #1: How necessary are librarian-lead sessions to the information literacy curriculum? 

A: It might depend on what’s being taught.

I have absolutely had the experience of observing instructors do my job as well or better than I could, (I’m looking at you Matt Cheney,) and at those times it’s been a pleasure to learn from them.  But I can also say that the comfort level of instructors around communicating information literacy concepts varies a lot depending on the instructor and the particular subject. 

It may be that there are pieces of info lit that lend themselves better to being taught by the instructor, and some that the librarians could really excel at.  I have to risk incurring the displeasure of some of my colleagues by saying that as time passes I’m less and less interested in sessions on “how to search the database.”  Don’t get me wrong, databases are amazingly powerful and important to students in all majors.  But the basics of database searching might lend itself better to being taught by the primary course instructor, and sprinkled through the course in chunks when and where the instructor deems it most helpful.  (Maybe we could do a train the trainer thing to make sure everyone is comfortable enough to do this?)  And of course I am always be happy to help at the reference desk on a one on one basis when the basics aren’t enough. 

More and more though I’m drawn to talking about topics like Wikipedia and Google, what impact do they have on our information diets, how can they be used well, and what are their shortcomings.  Topics like the ethical use of information, when and why we should care about copyright infringement or plagiarism, and when we shouldn’t.  I think I could do this well and that librarians definitely are the right people to lead these kinds of conversations.

Uncomfortable question #2: How necessary is uniformity within the information literacy curriculum? 

A: It doesn’t have to be perfect or all encompassing, but we do want this.

Even within FYS, since I’ve been here at least, uniformity hasn’t really existed.  Although there was a requirement that all FYS classes meet with a librarian, this was there was so much to cover in only a session or two that we each chose different pieces based on what we and the instructor thought were important.  

For some students, FYS was not the only time they had sessions with librarians, (although for some it was.)  Librarians are invited to do sessions in other courses at the discretion of the instructor.   But this is a pretty haphazard approach; two students who take the same course but with different instructors may get very different levels of librarian support and involvement.  I also wonder if we do a good enough job letting our teaching lecturers know that this is something we do.

We haven’t had perfect uniformity in the past and the sky didn’t fall.  But we do our students a disservice if we don’t create some common learning outcomes around information literacy the way we have around composition and math. I still have to embrace some level of uniformity, even as I embrace greater student control in determining their educational experiences.  There are pieces of info lit that I do think we as a campus want to take a stand on and provide via some sort of common experience to each and every one of our students. 

The first that comes to mind is evaluation of sources in this age of Russian troll factories and immense political polarization.  So I was super happy to see that Mike Caulfiled’s SIFT work is included in the TWP OER.  This is a good step towards having some common info lit curriculum, but it’s not yet clear to me what role that the OER plays in TWP – do all instructors assign their students to read all the chapters, and do they all have corresponding class discussions about it, is one discussion enough to master the concepts?  If this piece of information literacy were one of the hills that we were going to die on, would we want a universal in-person experience to go along with the OER (whether led by librarians or primary course instructors)? 

This is just one place where I think uniformity is desirable and possible, but not the only one.  There are other information literacy components that deserve to be formally incorporated into the curriculum.

Is this a good time to point out that this is the rambling of a single librarian.  Please don’t mistake this for any sort of consensus opinion of the PSU librarians.  Among your librarians there are a variety of viewpoints and priorities where instruction is concerned.  This doesn’t worry me though; I actually think it’s an asset in this transitional time.  It means we can try a variety of approaches to see what is the best fit for where we’re trying to go. 

I’ll end by saying that the librarians are meeting weekly over the summer to brainstorm ideas for instruction, making now a really good time to share your opinions and experiences so that they can inform our work.   Comments welcome below.

3 thoughts on “Information Literacy Instruction in Transition”

  1. These are interesting uncomfortable questions! By the way, the TWP Steering Committee believes that information literacy is absolutely critical and so we expect that these topics will be a part of every section of the course. We sent an email to all the instructors today listing the common elements that should be part of every section. This is what we said about information literacy and the library:

    “Information literacy is an important part of the class. But this should not be content that is “delivered” to the student. Instead, students learn about information literacy topics as they authentically need them in order accomplish a task related to the wicked problem and their attempt to change the world. We call this “just-in-time” learning.

    The library is an important resource that every student should feel comfortable using. Each section of the class should visit the library at least once, although more often is preferable. Please arrange these visits with the librarian assigned to your section.”

    I don’t have answers to your questions but did want you to know that we think information literacy is critical for success in today’s world and we see the librarians as an important partner for the course.

    1. Hi Cathie, thanks for reading and for your comment! I hope you know I don’t doubt your support, I actually feel tons of love for the library from all over our campus 🙂 I just want to honestly examine all my assumptions to make sure I don’t uncritically keep doing the same things. I think the high rate of change at PSU right now makes this a good time to revisit assumptions and try some new things around information literacy. I’m very interested in in giving students more agency in their education (I blame those ATI keynoters & Cathy Davidson). I think giving students more control can result in them seeking out the info they need in a just-in-time way. I have a lot more thinking to do about how to make that a bigger part of the info lit that I do and also about what is a good balance between student agency and prescribed curricular elements.

  2. What a good, thoughtful post, Christin. Thank you. Through the 30 plus years I’ve been a librarian, I have seen the profession and myself change to meet students’ needs and to grow with the technological changes that have come fast and furious.
    Cathie, I’m glad you are promoting “just-in-time” learning. I have been promoting this with my FYS and TWP instructors for many years, although I call it “point-of-need”. Of course students will be more engaged if there is something at stake, a reason to put information finding skills to use. I’m excited to see what this next round of change will bring, and look forward to working with students in crafting new ways to work with available tools to build information literacy.

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