Information literacy – not for wimps, or how to untangle spaghetti

February 1, 2008

Last week a group of librarians in Wales held an information literacy day – nothing unusual in that, except that they weren’t talking Boolean logic or Harvard referencing. Instead, “Persistence – Proactivity – Positioning” were the watchwords, and the focus was very much on the role the LRC plays in teaching and learning. It was a challenging and very enjoyable course led by Sharon Markless on Information Literacy: Strategies for Success. The day was organised for FE Learning resources managers by RSC Wales and funded by a CyMAL Reader Development Grant to the Fforwm Learning Resource Managers Network. The group was mainly FE LRC staff but we welcomed staff from Newport and Glamorgan Universities also. People went away with a number of new ways to untangle the spaghetti that is Information Literacy (IL).

Pasta fresca

Image courtesy of 7-how-7, located on Flickr and shared under Creative Commons.

Why were we there?

Many LRCs are delivering some kind of teaching sessions but most feel that they would like to be doing it even better. Following earlier training days which looked at tools and techniques for the classroom, we were looking for ways to introduce or develop some kind of structured IL programme and the management techniques needed to get maximum impact.

Sharon helped participants to develop strategic approaches by using a change management framework, with strong influences from pedagogic theory, communication, marketing and psychology.

Though the focus was on library staff, there were many tips that could be applied to management of any change, including e-learning. It could be argued that both librarians and e-learning/ILT champions are in the business of trying to encourage and support people to change and adapt the ways they habitually work.

It’s impossible to do real justice here to the massive amount of material we covered in a very interactive day. Here are just some personal highlights and ideas sparked off by the day’s discussion.


We started off discussing how we would pitch an IL programme to senior management in one sentence. Not easy! We were given a good quote from Ross Todd, saying IL is ‘not surfing [information] but swimming actively in it to arrive somewhere new”. Most of the definitions which are used tend to list skills, but we were warned that this does not tend to win over senior management. It needs to be sold in terms of how it benefits student learning. One thing Sharon was very clear about, was that induction is not a good time for teaching. Something to bear in mind when we consider re-packaging library inductions or IL materials for online delivery.

Change management

If I was only to pass on one key message from the day, it is the 30-40-30 rule: for any new initiative, if you are lucky 30 per cent of people will accept the change, 40 can be won over under the right conditions, and 30 will resist whatever you do. You could apply this to any change. What this means for staff trying to introduce an IL programme is: don’t expect to reach everyone. We could all identify a department who we really struggled to engage with IL. Engineering seemed to be a hard nut to crack just about everywhere, for some reason!

One of the most useful activities was a force field analysis where we took a long hard look at the positive and negative forces at work in our institution. This gave people a chance to see that they are not alone and also to look on both the positive and negative sides. The force field analysis would be worth doing with a wide range of staff in the LRC, as well as staff or event students from outside it, to get a complete picture. If nothing else you could learn a lot about how people perceive IL.

We looked at all the different factors that can influence the effectiveness of a strategy. We were reminded that you cannot expect to control or influence everything. The single most important factor is “institutional culture” which no one person can change. One hard fact to face is that sometimes you may just have to give up a lost cause and work on something else for a while.

Learning technology – does it help?

Here, Sharon struck a note of caution: putting materials on a VLE or web page is not always going to benefit the learner. But some major benefits of bringing in learning technology:

  • scope for learner diversity, provided you allow people to branch of as needed
  • scope to whet the appetite with lots of different media e.g. podcasts/audio files
  • ability to link to real world (eg video clips)
  • scope for collaborative working

Recommended site: SWIM – A Danish project (fortunately there’s an English language version)

Graphic organizers were mentioned as a tool for IL. I’d never come across the term before. They have some similarities with mind maps but take more varied forms. Looking around for any info on librarians using graphic organizers I came across this link in School Library Journal and I was also reminded that there is some really useful stuff for librarians working with (or as) teachers in Teacher Librarian magazine.

In discussion several people mentioned using voting systems in their classes: these can help to liven up the session, encourage the teacher to stay with the group, provide evidence of activity, and allow students to contribute without loss of face.

Information behaviour

One of the things the day brought home to me was that web 2.0 has made the process of finding information for student research a whole lot messier, with more resources and more problems evaluating their value. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that in real life people don’t tend to follow nice orderly models. Sharon pointed out that professional thinking around IL has not taken full account of research on information behaviour. That’s not to say that there is no place for a “search strategy”, just that it is likely to be personalised and less sequential than the models suggest.

At the same time, the fact that the task of handling information is much messier, gives an opportunity to raise the profile of IL. There is also a much richer choice of media and engaging materials, for example video clips or NLN materials. Learners can manipulate their data in new ways, adding creativity and collaborative possibilities to an activity which previously could feel very lonely and mechanical.

From ‘this is how to do it right’ to problem-solving

From the word go, Sharon emphasised the importance of constructivist learning theory, helping learners to build on what they already know, make sense of your material, and set it in context. So rather than launch into ‘this is how you do a search of database x’, you would look at what their task is, how they would go about it, then help them to see how to fit the new database into this behaviour. Only then would you offer the detailed help on how to use the resource. One excellent way to find out how best to integrate an IL session with the rest of the students’ learning is to observe lecturers teaching.

The point about ‘making sense’ was an eye opener: when people have referred to ‘creating new knowledge’ in IL I have always assumed it meant ‘doing primary research’ ie at PhD level, and not relevant to lower levels. But using the constructivist model, you could think of all learners creating knowledge that is new for them.

Assessing student learning and evaluating impact

The busy nature of the average FE LRC means that imaginative solutions are needed to the problems of assessing IL and measuring impact. Some interesting ideas were put forward such as peer feedback, monitoring without interfering, and getting lecturers to provide some feedback on any changes in students’ performance. One LRC had used students own presentations as an advertisement for their IL teaching. We were shown some fascinating mindmaps by art students showing how they went about searching for information: these doubled as evidence for assessment and also useful publicity material.

Sharon was involved with the school library evaluation toolkits available on the Teachernet site. The toolkit for secondary schools has a separate section on “the quality of teaching provided by LRC staff” (section 3).

Other interesting points

Just a few more ideas that I jotted down:

  • forget building an IL strategy on the notion that people’s main problem is finding enough information – it’s a non-starter
  • value the social aspects of information behaviour
  • avoid library jargon – your language must resonate with people
  • work out what you are selling – it may be different things to different people…
  • …but strong generic “branding” for a programme is good
  • marketing IL as a list of skills is unlikely to be effective when trying to sell IL at the top level

I was hoping to finish this entry with a quote that someone came up with at the end of the day, something like the library is the place where the learner learns to challenge the teacher’. However I can’t place the quote so if anyone can come up with the source, please leave a comment as I would love to know what it is! It feels a suitably subversive note to end on, for a day which was all about making waves.

Many thanks to Sharon for a great day.


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