Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A New Curriculum for Information Literacy – NetworkED Session at LSE

Last week I attended an online seminar on information literacy hosted by LSE. Dr Jane Secker and Dr Emma Coonan were talking about their project to create a new curriculum for information literacy.

Improving my own research skills teaching is one of my current targets and I heard Jane talk about information literacy earlier this year at the CoFHE LASEC training day / teach meet so I was interested to see what they had come up with.

Webinar Technology

There was a certain amount of good natured cynicism in the office when I said I was going to attend a webinar so I feel I should mention that in this particular case the technology worked very smoothly. The LSE simply live streamed the session from their website and interaction with online participants was handled via twitter.

You can still view the video of the seminar (I don't know how long LSE will keep it up though). The twitter tag for these NetworkED seminars is #LSENetEd.

Researching Information Literacy

The project was backed by the Arcadia Programme which provides funding for experts to spend ten weeks looking at an aspect of “the role of academic libraries in a digital age”. Jane and Emma’s goal was to “develop a new revolutionary curriculum for information literacy in a digital age”.

In her opening comments Emma pointed out that this kind of project involves learning about learning or research about research. It is meta-research.

They started their project by reviewing the literature and getting expert opinion. The latter was done through a modified Delphi study. The modification was that experts were allowed to bounce ideas off each other rather than being questioned in isolation.

The expert consultation played a big part in shaping the curriculum. These were the key lessons that they took from it:

• How you teach is at least as important as what you teach.
• Information literacy needs to be embedded into the academic curriculum.
• Allow for the differences between disciplines.
• Don’t treat students as one homogenous group. Think about their needs.
• A modular curriculum would be more effective because people can then plug bits in.
• Don’t specify particular software or tools because technology moves too fast.
• Beware of myths about technology i.e. the google generation / digital native idea or the assumption that all students have particular tools.
• Active learning is the best way to learn. Adopt a hands-on approach. Let students try things.
• Include opportunities for refection.

One of the problems their literature review uncovered was the perennial issue of the terminology gap between library folk and everyone else. Their plan relies on lecturers delivering the curriculum. Do teaching staff actually know what we mean when we say information literacy? Outside the library world there is a tendency to confuse information literacy with digital literacy, identifying it purely with the ability to find information online rather than thinking about the broader skills involved.

Perhaps more unexpectedly they were also critical of the way the library world uses the term. We tend to bemoan teachers’ tendency to interpret the concept narrowly or to ignore it but there are similar misconceptions that are common among librarians. For example in practice we tend to see it primarily in terms of searching for information. For skilled researchers searching for information involves higher level thinking skills like synthesis, critical evaluation etc. These skills all flow into one another in a “dynamic ongoing process”.

When we run our own information literacy sessions how often do we go any further than nodding towards those higher level thinking skills? I am prepared to admit that most of my own sessions focus on finding information. This is something I need to think about. I will dig out some material on Bloom’s taxonomy.

They also decided that the culture clash between HE and earlier stages of the education system was a central issue for their study. Their point was that newly arrived HE students have to make a sudden adjustment to having to learn independently. Students who struggle with this are pathologised, treated as having a problem and often then passed on to support services.

Personally my initial reaction was that this angle was slightly overplayed. I’m working in an FE college library and I was briefly a secondary school teacher so my immediate response was to feel slightly defensive. I'll admit that we are constrained by a system that can encourage a slightly box ticking, jump through the hoops attitude to education. But that said we do try to encourage independent learning lower down the education system.

Now I’ve had time to reflect I think we need to see this as a challenge. What can we do to make sure that our students leave college with right skills to be good independent learners and to hit the ground running at university? Hopefully looking at this new curriculum will help us.

Libraries obviously have a central role to play in promoting and developing information literacy. Interestingly though Jane and Emma make a point of rejecting the idea that information literacy is “the preserve or saviour of the library”. This isn’t about promoting all the wonderful things that libraries and librarians do to help students to find and use information properly. We can’t jealously guard information literacy as our exclusive territory; it is bigger than any one profession.

One of the central ideas behind their curriculum is that “information literacy needs to be part of the mainstream academic mission”. As far as possible they want it to be integrated into normal teaching but they also see it as something that needs to involve everyone in the institution.

They do acknowledge that gaining that kind of commitment won’t always be easy. It clearly requires a high degree of support from senior management and other areas of the organisation. They recommend building support by thinking in terms of finding the right hooks for each group. Hopefully at FE level preparing students for university should be an effective hook.

We can’t stick to our existing models of ownership. We need teaching staff to see information literacy as their business. Other members of staff also need to be encouraged to buy into the idea. On top of all that librarians need to think beyond our own boundaries.

Delivering the New Curriculum

The curriculum itself is divided into ten strands. Each strand then has five levels. Jane emphasised the point that the strands aren’t intended to follow each other. They aren’t levels that need to be worked through in order or even always looked at separately. Number one is probably the first one a HE teacher should look at but don’t let that distort the way you approach these. The curriculum is intended to be flexible and modular.

1. Transition from school to higher education
2. Becoming an independent learner
3. Developing academic literacies
4. Mapping and evaluating the information landscape
5. Resource discovery in your discipline
6. Managing information
7. Ethical dimension of information
8. Presenting and communicating knowledge
9. Synthesising information and creating new knowledge
10. Social dimension of information literacy

Interestingly after Jane and Emma had outlined their project they explained that the next Arcadia team (there is a new group every ten weeks) is working on looking at the practicalities of actually delivering the new curriculum. They invited Dr Helen Webster from that team to talk to us about her work.

Helen comes from a teaching background so her perspective was slightly different. For example on the issue of terminology she said that at the start of the project she was uncomfortable with the word ‘information’. She associated it with simplistic pedagogies; models of teaching that see education in terms of the simple transfer of information from the teacher’s head to the student’s head. She’s changed her mind now of course but it’s not really practical to get every teacher to take part in this kind of research project.

She argued that for most teachers teaching information literacy is about making explicit processes that they take for granted. Students need their teachers to explain research processes and thought processes that have become invisible to the teachers. This is vitally important for the students but difficult for the teachers.

Arguably this is actually something teachers should be good at by definition. You have to make your own thought processes explicit to students in order to teach maths or literary criticism or anything really. Perhaps it’s more a question of encouraging teachers to use those skills when asking students to carry out research or other tasks that require high levels of information literacy.

One of the difficulties about trying to look at the practical delivery of IL teaching is that IL that’s fully integrated into the academic curriculum is harder to see then IL that is taught in stand alone sessions. The new curriculum is designed to be integrated and the expert advice was that this was best practice. This suggests that the very best examples of IL teaching are among the hardest for researchers to study.

More positively Helen fairly quickly realised that the curriculum was a huge step forward. She wanted to find out what was ‘new’ about the ‘new curriculum’. The answer was that it is a curriculum.

She looked at all the existing information literacy models and frameworks, SCONUL’s seven pillars and the rest. None of them were curriculums. They were of limited use for teaching purposes because they just described the goal. They outline what information literacy is and what an information literate person should be like but they didn’t offer any real guidance on how to help someone reach that goal. Developing an actual curriculum for information literacy seems to be an important step forward in itself.

The curriculum itself and the research that shaped its development can all be accessed via the project’s blog. If you are involved in delivering information literacy teaching then this is a resource that you should look at. It is arguably the first real attempt to create a detailed curriculum for information literacy. It is designed to be flexible and modular so you should be able to pick out some aspects or ideas that you can use in your own context. Please note that it is published under creative commons. They want you to use it but remember to credit them.

Adopting the curriculum in a more in depth way might be more difficult. To get the most out of it a whole university / college approach is best. If that is a short term possibility in your organisation then go for it! If that will take some time and some work (or seems unachievable) then adopting some aspects of the curriculum in your own lessons would be the best place to start. My fellow librarians might want to consider promoting this to academic staff. Encouraging individual teachers or even whole departments to integrate aspects of this curriculum into their teaching could have real benefits for our students. Using it at further education level might help students to bridge the gap between college and university by giving them the independent learning skills that they will need to do well.

If you or your colleagues do use this as a resource then Jane and Emma would welcome any feedback that you might have.


  1. Alan, thanks so much for a great review of the first seminar in our new series. We're particularly glad that our light touch approach to using technologies worked well - and apparently in our favour judging by your comment!
    We're planning on keeping recordings online indefinitely, to be viewed at any time.

    Regarding your critical reception of their point about HE/ schools culture clash, I don't think Emma's and Jane's point was to bemoan the school system per se, certainly not to deride school teachers who try to foster independent learning, but simply to point out that we cannot expect new students in HE to be fully information literate from the day they get here! Hence the need for the curriculum. Perhaps also, the current school system is geared towards standardised testing, which presumably leaves less room for also making sure that information literacy skills are being taught. On that topic, I really like this RSA animate video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U


  2. Thank you Sonja. The light touch technologies did work very well. I was impressed by how smoothly it all went.

    I didn't mean to be overly critical about the HE / schools culture clash point. I know it wasn't meant as an attack. I just wanted to wave the flag a bit for all the good work that is done in schools and FE colleges.

    I will have a look at the video. Thank you.