Where does information literacy fit within Higher Education?

The term “information literacy” is widely accepted in Higher Education (HE). Initially the term “information skills” was used, however, this was felt to be too mechanistic and tended to only represent the ‘behaviours’ associated with information literacy, such as knowing how to use various tools, rather than attitudes and ways of thinking.

In HE the primary purpose of information literacy interventions is to enable students to independently seek information and use it appropriately and conform to academic information norms. One could call this ‘academic information literacy’. Traditionally a great deal of emphasis is placed on using the information resources provided by the university library and the ethical use of information i.e. citing works and avoiding plagiarism and the evaluation of sources. This focus has broadened to encompass other aspects of becoming informed including defining information problems and needs, making effective use of information found and communicating the results of research. To some extent this has involved covering what in the past have been called ‘study skills’.

Diverse customers

One of the challenges of developing information literacy in the HE environment is the diverse audience. Information literacy in undergraduate Chemistry may have a different focus from a social science, Master’s programme, in Participation, Power and Social Change. The latter for example may value community based ‘voices’ more so than the ‘expert’ academic. The chemist will be dealing with different information tools and will need to manage information resources, such as, lab reports that other students will not have to deal with. As a result information literacy tends to be delivered by subject librarians who have an understanding of the resources and academic style of the disciplines.

In addition to subject diversity there is also level. First semester undergraduates have different needs from second year, third year, Master’s or PhD students. Information literacy teaching for new undergraduates is partly a remedial activity where the learners have tended to have come from a learning culture where information resources tend to be given or pointed out to the learner rather than independently sought. They therefore need to be encouraged to seek for information independently and have the skills to determine its relevance and usefulness. They also have either no experience or very little of searching databases for high quality information. Hence at this level IL training tends to orientate the learner to a new world of information. Later in their academic career more depth and breadth would be given. However, it should be noted that just because learners are of an apparent higher level their IL can not be assumed; particularly when learners come from overseas.

Approaches to teaching information literacy

It has been challenging for librarians to introduce IL training into the HE environment. This has been due to various reasons: academics do not always see the need; in some subjects there is still a focus on the recommended text book with very little inquiry based learning; academics are not familiar with the library language of information literacy (the phrase itself tends not to be understood); the curriculum is already felt to be full; we are dealing with ever larger cohorts. As indicated academics can be a challenge partly because they are not necessarily conscious of their own information literacy that has been learnt and absorbed over a long period of time. Nevertheless, they tend to want their students to read more widely and use the information around them in a critical fashion, plus they don’t want their students to plagiarise. These therefore tend to be the ‘way in’ for introducing information literacy.

IL interventions take many forms. These could be a short lecture of the information sources available to students. Individual subject specific data bases may be highlighted, for example. At the other extreme information literacy is incorporated into an assignment and IL teachers/trainers/facilitators are actively involved in the entire process, helping students to systematically define their topic and draw on the range of resources and make use of the information found and incorporate it in their work, as well as communicating their findings effectively. The latter tends to be the most effective approach since learners can see the purpose of what they are learning and apply it in a way that helps them achieve their goals – hence gaining engagement and motivation from the students. Raising the standard of the work, particularly in terms of the sources used and the critical analysis of the material, will also satisfy the academics. Various other approaches have been used including online tutorials.

The degree of integration of information literacy in the curriculum and the degree it is tailored to the needs of the learner depends on a number of factors including: the proactive nature and negotiation skills of the librarians and the receptiveness of the faculty. Where successful, it has served to promote the library and show how the library can contribute to teaching and learning goals.

If, as it seems to be the case, inquiry based or problem based or project based learning becomes more popular in HE then it is likely that there will be more opportunity and need to incorporate IL.

Measuring impact

The impact of information literacy interventions in HE have been measured in a number of ways. These include pre and post diagnostic tests i.e. before and after an intervention. Other approaches include measuring the number of citations and the range and quality of citations. The assumption being that the more IL the greater the number and quality of citations. Where IL has been embedded in modules it has been possible to implement strategies described above and also to incorporate assessment for IL within the module. For example, if students are taking part in independent inquiry, an essay for example, marks can be rewarded for a description and rationale of their use of information sources and information seeking. However, this needs the collaboration of faculty and building these into the module assessment well in advance. Electronic methods have also played a role, where students comment on the sources they have used and their strengths and weaknesses. Using a discussion list to share comments has been shown to stimulate peer to peer learning and has also provided evidence of information literacy in the language learners use to talk about information. Where possible short, frequent, assessments that support the information seeking, use and management process during project work tend to be effective in that they keep the students on track and provide them with ongoing help and feedback during the process of finding out.

What can you do?

If you are already developing information literacy programmes in HE, then we want to hear from you. If you are thinking of developing a programme, then we may be able to put you in touch with others who have experience that can help you. This site collects and makes available information literacy practice that can help you, including practitioner research. Some of this is from other sectors, but there are common lessons.