information literacy

Serendipitous Syllabus Overload, and Having Students Help Build a Course

Teacher-Librarians

In practice here at CSUCI Broome Library, we are all teaching librarians. when I schedule information literacy sessions, all librarians are up for grabs for me–my Head of Public Services and Outreach, Head of Unique Collections and Scholarly Communication, my Collections & Technical Services Coordinator, my Electronic Resources Librarian, my Original Cataloging Librarian, even my dean/AVP. Everybody’s on deck when there’s an instruction need, and with over 120 information literacy sessions scheduled this fall alone, everybody bats, and everybody bats big. In addition to the many information literacy sessions we teach, many of us also teach semester-long classes.

Before I talk about teaching my credit course this semester, some important background. Here at CSUCI, the librarians (who have tenure-track faculty status) regularly teach and co-teach credit courses in disciplines where we’re qualified, in addition to classes actually certified under the LIB (Library as home department) heading. We’re teaching (or co-teaching in some cases) both lower- and upper-division courses in English, University Studies, Political Science, History, Communication, and Freedom & Justice Studies, among others. It’s pretty difficult not to trip over us anywhere in the curriculum. In theory (and sometimes practice), the home departments get us on buyout either through their budget or through a grant, so that the library dean can hire part-time lecturers to fill behind us for things like reference desk time and other duties that are more easily transferred to another person. (Whether librarians are tenure-track, whether they teach, and how that is decided and practiced varies widely, even in my own experience across a handful of state universities.)

Here at Broome Library, we are encouraged to teach within home departments and effectively become embedded information literacy ninjas, integrating information literacy concepts and work into the regular work of the curriculum, especially since information literacy is specifically written into our general education requirements. I’m still new to the politics of the place, but our teaching seems to go over well with all involved. The struggle becomes when the buyout doesn’t quite happen, and resources get strained. We can easily backfill reference desk hours, but other duties are not so easily re-assigned. General wisdom is that teaching one class per semester is do-able, and most librarians teach one class every or every-other semester. Occasionally opportunities related to grants and new initiatives come up and someone teaches two classes, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a grueling pace to have to keep. Just the one class has kept me pretty well on my toes this semester.

Sooprize Collaboration: Including Students in Syllabus-Building

This semester I’ve been teaching FJS 340: Exploring Freedom and Justice, a first-time course for me. It’s been going very well — my initial syllabus scared the students a bit: because we have a 2 hour 50 minute block for class once a week, I treated each block as two classes, and took seriously the idea that for a 3-credit class, at least 9 hours of work was going into it per week. Add to that what *I* figure I can read and digest across 9 hours, and cue panicked undergrads in a gen-ed course faced with what was essentially a graduate-level workload. My initial misstep actually led to a great activity, though, in which I gave my students the opportunity to choose which readings they would focus on each week. From the initial syllabus, we went week by week, and I indicated which two readings were foundational and would be required. After that, I described each of the remaining readings *and why I chose to include them on the syllabus*, and the students, in collaboration with each other, chose two to three more readings from the remaining four to seven that were listed for the week.

It was an eye-opening experience–I approached building my syllabus as seriously and carefully as any architect, building a list of readings from a broad bibliography painstakingly developed, paring it down to what I thought was essential and including some items I hoped students would find uncomfortable, intriguing, or controversial. Since the course is multidisciplinary in nature, I talked with colleagues both in and out of the library for ideas and readings, but I hadn’t considered consulting students in the building of my syllabus. It turns out that students really engaged in the exercise, and because they are the ones who have effectively chosen the readings for each week, they’ve taken real ownership of the material (to the point of calling folks out for being the deciding vote for choosing a particular article, and then being caught out in discussion as the one not reading it).

We also went through the list of assignments and pared those down, though that was mostly removing one large project, rearranging some due dates, and redistributing point values. I discovered that what some may find tedious in terms of syllabus revision, the students found fascinating–the nuts and bolts behind the decision-making of course creation, how point values were determined, why assignments were included and what they were designed to do in terms of asking students to demonstrate mastery. Course-creation became a real conversation and a bit more of a collaboration with students than I’ve experienced in the past.

The accidental and conversational approach to a too-large syllabus worked so well that I’m actually going to build this in as part of the first day’s activities for the next time I teach the course, in Spring 2016. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to structure this in such a way that I might study it and report out, so any ideas welcome.

Engaged Journaling vs. Weekly Critical Reflection Assignments

This exercise, though accidental, synergized nicely with the way assignments were designed. In addition to a large research project scaffolded through the semester (more on that in a moment), in the past I’ve assigned students to complete a weekly critical reflection on the material they read for class. The intent of the assignment is not to get the students to summarize–I tell them I’ve already read the material, I assume they’re going to do the same–but to have the students think critically about where they see the principles for the week manifested in their own worlds, what that means, and how/whether the week’s material changed how they think about something. Inevitably, though, the weekly reflections become summaries. The students begin to detest writing them, I start to detest reading them. I attended a workshop on building community in the classroom with Dr. Jacob Jenkins (Dr. J) of our Communication faculty, and he generously shared with me his work on active/engaged journaling exercises.

Though I did ask students for critical reflections during a few weeks (particularly where I ask them to consider what information is valued in their field, and how it is valued), for most of the other weeks I asked them to engage the material in different ways. During the week where I ask them to consider readings on various “ways of knowing,” students were asked to write a poem or song lyric capturing a ‘way of knowing’ other than academic, with the option of performing their piece in class live or recording it to play to the class via YouTube. During a week where we considered information as a freedom and justice issue within the context of political science and international conflict, students were tasked with selecting an image that felt significant to them after considering that week’s readings, and speaking for 1-2 minutes on why they chose that image and how it resonated with their understanding of concepts within the readings.

So far, the assignments have been a success. The biggest success has been generating conversation between students regarding the choices they made, and what concepts are more difficult to grasp than others. The assignments are low stakes in terms of points, but really help to start off each class session with energy (not a small thing for a 12:00-2:50pm class), and the chance to work with concepts in a more personal, engaging way than just academic narrative appears to (1) inform how well students understand the concepts presented, and (2) make students much more open to discussing difficulties they encountered in the material, both in terms of comprehension and in terms of struggling with questions of social justice within particular contexts. This is no mean feat–before we explore information in different disciplines (such as economics and business, health, political science, and others), students have to master theories of freedom and justice. This means the first few weeks are heavy on political theory, which can be tough for students to get through. Low stakes assignments designed to elicit questions and identify challenges early mean that by the time we make it out into the disciplines we want to explore, students are comfortable with identifying the concepts of freedom and justice at work, as well as identifying those not actively considered by parties to various information conflicts.

The assignments also prime students for discussion–students have been eager to share their work and creativity, and the way I organize class is usually around a number of larger discussion questions instead of lecture. Because students have just engaged with sharing their assignment, moving into discussion about the readings (which were the foundation for their assignments) works well in terms of transition. We move from sharing the assignment, to covering concepts and lingering questions, and then into application across cultures and connection across disciplines.

It’s not all fun and games; my students are required to work on a research paper throughout the term–more on that in the next post. But so far, both the syllabus-decisions and the engaged journaling exercises (hat-tip to Dr. J!) have been huge successes for my course, and I’m looking forward to seeing how students respond to the next iteration when I intentionally include their feedback. I’m going to be doing a search for some literature on faculty who have involved students this way in syllabus-building, so if you know of any good reads on the subject, please share!

Riding the Wrecking Ball, Or, Fall Semester: 2015

This semester has been a grueling one–it started with a bang, and is just now beginning to let up. And by ‘let up,’ I mean it’s just now that I can start getting to my long to-do list of things I was hoping to accomplish this semester that fall just outside my primary duties of coordinating and scheduling instruction. That list includes reflecting on my teaching,

Summer 2015

Summer was a wild one, with some rough health issues, then a week away at PhD camp for the Mythological Studies degree, then the first week of August in Seattle for the ACRL Immersion program, then coming back to welcoming the new faculty, developing the syllabus for my new class, and scheduling library instruction.

September: All Information Literacy Instruction, All the Time

In September, I taught 27 instruction sessions across all manner of subjects (including Anthropology, Art, Business, Education, English, Environmental Science & Resource Management, Communication, Psychology, Political Science, Spanish, University Studies). Something I really value about the way our library works is that we are true partners with faculty–for every instruction session I teach, I make personal contact with the faculty member, and we craft the instruction session to be specific to what they want their students to learn in the context of their research assignment. Another policy that existed before I came that I’m happy with is that faculty are required to attend library sessions with their classes; no faculty member, no session. I’ve broken this policy on a few occasions where a faculty member made a specific request, and every time it has resulted in a poorer session not only because the professor tends to have a moderating effect on student behavior, but because we dig into the details of the assignment and it is always surprising how little the students understand, and how much the professor has to explain that they thought was clear. The value-add of that short conversation and having students articulate their understanding of their information needs (and having the professor see how *un*clear their instructions were) is immense.

I’ve made some good connections this year in teaching that I’ve been excited about. I’ve noticed that something as simple as asking if students are happy with their results, instead of whether they are getting good results, has led to better conversations with students about refinement and articulating their need. When teaching students how to read a full record from one of our databases, I hit on the idea (not novel, probably, but a new connection for me) that the hyperlinked subject terms effectively work like hashtags. It definitely livens up class when we can connect something familiar like #whitepeopleproblems or #bringbackourgirls to translating the pieces of research information in a record, and there’s a genuine “aha” moment I see in students’ eyes. That has been incredibly rewarding, so I’m using that analogy to death in relevant sessions.

I’ve had a huge uptick in the number of students emailing me after sessions, stopping me around campus, and coming by to see me at the library. It makes me happy that they come back to ask more questions, and so far (according to informal poll and students coming up to me after sessions and randomly during the day) the students feel that they’ve learned something new and useful in each of the sessions.

October

Somehow I’m only 8 instruction sessions into October–it feels like more, but they’ve also been upper-level and more specialized (including one session entirely on using EndNoteWeb for a Chicano Studies class). It’s been a blur – the rheumatoid arthritis was a real monkeywrench thrown into things this month with some uncontrollable inflammation, pain and swelling, and I spent the month mostly resting at home during off-time so I could work, hurling myself through the workday, and then heading home to collapse and do it all again. October is a vague blur of steroids, teaching, reference, meetings, and doctor appointments. By the grace of my colleagues who helped me with coverage and offered generous emotional support and cheerleading, and my husband who handles everything so that I can collapse, I’m still here, and if I make it through this week, I get to step into November. Ooh-rah! Next up to end the month (and my to-do right after I finish dashing this off) is setting up and testing Zoom for my first distance-delivered instruction session.

To Come

In the more-to-come for the back end of the semester, I’m getting caught up on grading for the course I’m teaching in Freedom and Justice Studies, working to establish some standards and options for distance information-literacy sessions, working on a gnarly revise-and-resubmit, and during the post-finals dip I’ll be getting to the chapters submitted for the edited collection I’ve contracted with ALA Editions. I’ll also be working with our director of the Writing & Multiliteracy Center to develop a new workshop series. I was lucky enough to have a talented friend and author come forward as a co-editor to finish the work on the collected papers on mythology and contemporary women poets that I started a few years ago, and thanks to her energy and talent, the collection is speeding toward publication and should come out in 2016. (More on this in another post where I discuss the difficulty of letting go a project I simply couldn’t finish.) So, always more to do, but it’s always interesting. Onward!

Professional Development 2015: Spring/Summer

Spring 2015 started with a bang, and the reference and instruction folks have been swamped with very full teaching schedules. I hear rave reviews from discipline faculty about how those sessions go, which is heartening. Maybe even better, I hear rave reviews from our students who stop by the reference desk! Our recent program review by outside parties, a regular requirement of all programs here at CSUCI, also went very well and it was good to hear what our faculty and students thought about our strengths and weaknesses.

In all the hubbub, I also wanted to point out some upcoming professional development excitement:

  • I’ve been selected to be a Spring 2015 Project ISLAS (Institutionalizing Student Learning, Access and Success) Faculty Fellow. This means I’ll be attending various faculty-taught workshops on best practices in areas such as: teaching and engaging first generation and underrepresented students; research-based innovations in learning to learn; cross-campus collaborations to promote student access and success; service learning across the curriculum; multicultural and international perspectives across the curriculum; writing across the curriculum; outcomes-based assessment. And then I will join the graduates of the program as a member of the faculty offering such workshops for others. Last semester we librarians offered a workshop titled “Sustainable Information Literacy: Facilitating the Information Literate Classroom,” and it was a hit. We’ll be offering the same workshop, slightly revised, in early April 2015 for interested faculty.
  • The Ventura County Library is offering a grant-writing program in partnership with the California State Library, The Grantmanship Center and the Center for Nonprofit Leadership. With thanks to my colleagues for covering my reference desk shifts, I will be spending the last week of March at a 5-day workshop here in town to develop my grantswomanship and start flexing our library’s muscles for some funding. Participants are supposed to learn how to use the program’s model for developing a grant proposal, developing a budget that anticipates funding agency questions, learning which grants will fund specific projects, and the such. Plus, there’s 12 months of support from the Grantsmanship Center after the workshop. I plan to make the most of this with my CSUCI Broome Library colleagues!
  • With much thanks and most of the credit to my Library Chair and Head of Public Services Debi Hoffmann and Provost Gayle Hutchinson for stellar letters of recommendation, I’ve been accepted into the ACRL Immersion Program in the Program Track. For those unfamiliar with the program, it’s a competitive program with a thorough application process. As an accepted applicant, I will be spending one week in Seattle, Washington in an intensive series of workshops on developing campus partnerships, evaluating the information literacy program, and helping us evolve as we consider how we want to serve our students and faculty moving into the future. Some of the best instruction librarians I know are alumni of this program (and have referred to it as nothing less than “life-changing”), and I’m very excited that Amy Wallace, our AVP of the Library, is generously funding my attendance for the August 2015 session.

What Does an Information Literacy Coordinator Do?

As I’ve mentioned previously, I started my position as Information Literacy Coordinator at CSU Channel Islands on July 1 of this year (2014). My libraryfolk have a general idea of what my position entails, but I’m pretty sure my friends and family just nod their heads and smile and have no earthly clue what I do. So, here’s a post about what exactly it is that I do all day.

Information Literacy

First, let me start with a brief statement about Information Literacy, since that. Is a huge part of my job. What is it? It’s the set of skills and critical thinking applied to a person’s need for information. So, the recognition that one needs information to solve a problem or question; determining the best place to find that information; critically reviewing the information and its source for relevance, validity and reliability; deciding on the best way to incorporate that information into decision-making…all of these fall into the realm of information literacy. Generally in higher ed, the librarians on a campus engage in information literacy instruction (or just ‘library instruction’) to help train students in these skills, particularly as it relates to their particular assignment in a class, and more broadly as it relates to their academic discipline. So we teach students about critically reviewing information, choosing databases, publication cycles, different types of publications and their target audiences.

We also teach students research skills, such as developing keywords for their topic, researching and reviewing relevant information, and refining their topics and searches as they go through the iterative research process. We teach them how to navigate the often confusing and unintuitive interfaces of various research databases. We teach our students that research is a process, one that comes with various twists and turns, and that the deeper they get into the research process, the more likely it is that they may refine or change their research questions. We teach class sessions, some of us teach semester-long classes, we lead workshops for students, we lead workshops for faculty interested in targeting information literacy in their syllabi and assignments.

Here at CSUCI, information literacy is actually one of our general education outcomes, which means that faculty teaching GenEd courses *must* integrate information literacy components into their courses. What this means for me in my role is that there is great support University-wide for our information literacy efforts and outreach.

The nuts and bolts of my work as InfoLit Coordinator in my first semester has largely been getting my feet wet in teaching information literacy sessions. When I am assigned a session, I contact the faculty member to set up a meeting to discuss their assignment, and what they want students to get out of our session. (This doubles as an opportunity to get some face-to-face time with faculty and build relationships. more on that in a minute.) From that discussion and the faculty member’s assignment, I draft an outline for the session, and send it to the faculty member to make sure we are on the same page. Then I teach the session, and those range from 45 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on the class.

Sometime between next week and next semester, I’ll also be the one assigning session requests to librarians. All form requests for requesting information literacy sessions will come to my email inbox, and I’ll distribute them around to whomever is available. I’ve got access to everyone’s Outlook calendars, access to classroom scheduling, and access to the Excel log where we keep track of info lit sessions by class, library instructor, class instructor, time to prepare, length of session, and number of students. Having seen my Chair, Debi, do this effectively and in an orderly fashion all semester, I’m ready to take the reins.

Another part of my infolit job is outreach to faculty. I’ve spent a lot of time this semester inviting faculty out for a coffee, stopping by offices to introduce myself, and generally making a benign nuisance of myself to get to know as many faculty across as many disciplines as possible. I’m starting to understand what faculty want most from our information literacy program, and areas that we might be able to grow into.

I do outreach to other campus offices. We are currently hiring a director for our Writing and Multiliteracy Center, and I imagine I’ll be involved in partnerships and programming with that entity. I’ve spoken with our director of disability services; as a graduate student who struggled with an acquired disability, I have a particular passion for making connections with that office and their students to help them be as successful as possible. I’m building a great relationship with our director of Teaching and Learning Innovation, who offers resources to train faculty to deliver blended (a combination of online and in-person) learning. I’ve chatted with our director of Academic Technology, English faculty, Business faculty, Math faculty, Econ faculty, Education faculty, Spanish faculty…the list goes on. In every case, I’ve been met with enthusiasm and open-mindedness. In most cases, I’ve been able to either get them to schedule an information literacy session, or we’ve discussed partnering for other things. An example: a meeting with a member of the Spanish faculty has turned into a possible spring term plagiarism workshop for the Spanish department students and a possible initiative to involve gringa faculty in some Spanish language learning. (We are designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, and 40% of our students are Hispanic.)

Yet another aspect of my work is outreach to students. Students I’ve taught in my information literacy sessions all get my contact information, and I exhort them to please contact myself or the reference desk if they come across any stumbling blocks or want guidance as they navigate through various resources. This means I see a steady stream of students for research consults, where we take the time to discuss their research assignment in-depth, and we craft a strategy for their research together. I’ve found our students to be enthusiastic, and having just a little bit of direction or support makes them much more confident in their research. I’ve started some notes about what kinds of workshops our students might benefit from, and hope to pilot a few of those in the coming years.

I also work the reference desk about 5 hours per week, where I (wo)man the desk, and answer questions of all sorts – directional, research, printing, and whatever else comes up.

Service
 
Because I’m in a tenure-track Assistant Librarian position, I have  service responsibilities as well. In the University setting, “service” usually refers to serving on various department and campus committees and serving the community in a way related to your position.

In terms of service, my plate looks a little weird for my first year on the job. I’m currently a member of the Academic Senate Executive team. I was interested in seeing how the campus sausage and Senate agendas were made, and not many folks volunteered. We meet about once every two to three weeks during the semester, and review items for the upcoming Academic Senate meeting, respond to faculty concerns by serving as a clearinghouse for questions and other issues, and sometimes we get to see announcements or other information items before the general university faculty. Generally, we route concerns to the proper authority or committee. Occasionally we are asked to review system or campus issues.

Due to the serendipity of starting the semester relatively uncommitted compared to most of the other members, I am also co-chairing the Faculty Affairs committee with a veteran faculty member. This committee reviews (and creates, as necessary) issues and policies impacting the faculty. A few of the things that crossed our plate (though some are still there, much like broccoli) this semester included developing a policy on student rating of faculty instruction, discussing a nepotism policy, reviewing General Personnel Standards, and making a recommendation on requirements for online courses. It’s intriguing to see how everything hangs together, and to see how the work impacts the faculty at large. Many of the issues that come to the Faculty Affairs Committee are sent by the Academic Senate Executive team.

Both of those positions are odd for a first-year faculty member, since a lot of campus knowledge and historical context is important for both. I became involved because I was interested and because few others could clear their schedules to do so. Both appointments end in May 2015, and in August I will most likely become a committee member on (an)other committee(s), such as curriculum.

I’ve not yet been involved in local community service, since I’ve spent my first semester getting acclimated to campus responsibilities and recovering from some health issues, but I am excited to start exploring local volunteer opportunities in the spring.

Research

Research is also a requirement of tenure-track faculty. For those not familiar, in the traditional sense this usually means that you conduct some sort of study, write it up in official academic-sounding language, and either try to get that paper published in an academic journal that other scholars in your field read, or present the paper at a professional conference. Here at CI this commitment isn’t just called “research,” but “research, scholarship, and creative activities.” So, for English faculty, having a novel published may count as a creative activity under the research umbrella; for computer science faculty, developing a successful new program may count for this requirement. We are encouraged to be creative,and to be able to articulate how it furthers knowledge in our subject areas. CI is also not shy about the fact that our community places a great deal of value on interdisciplinary work, and collaborations with faculty in other disciplines is highly encouraged.

Research Project #1
Those of you who know me know that I love school, so papers tend to be my strength. I like to connect my research to my librarianship work, so I have a few research projects in the pipeline right now. In the spring, a faculty member in Communication and I are going to conduct a study comparing two classes she will be teaching (on the same subject). One class will get a traditional face-to-face library session, the other class will receive online multimedia training and an “Ask-the-Librarian” discussion board. Then we’ll compare the learning outcomes of both classes to see if there is any difference in how students exhibit information literacy learning outcomes. Why this research? (This question is important–my time is valuable, and I want my research to be important to my work.) We want to identify whether or not online modes of information literacy instruction are as effective as in-person. If they are, this may be an option we can add as a supplement to the work we already do for faculty, and it may be an option if we have to scale our operations to a larger student body in the future.

Research Project #2
Another research project involving a bunch (a cardigan?) of librarians as well as a collaborative partner in Florida will measure our students on a library anxiety scale, to see if this phenomenon, which tends to be negatively correlated with critical thinking and information literacy, exists in our student body. At other universities, the scale has shown some serious disparities between students of different races. Why this research? If we find that CI students do suffer from library anxiety, we can target interventions to new and existing students in at-risk populations to help them overcome it. That would hopefully mean better student use of library resources, our students becoming better critical thinkers, and ultimately a mor gratifying path to graduation for our students.

Research Project #3
This project has actually been in-progress for nearly a year–my dissertation to complete the EdD program. Currently, academic librarians as a profession have a very good idea of what leadership skills and qualities are necessary to be a good library director. What we do not know is where academic librarians develop those leadership skills and qualities before they become directors. This project does that sort of career-path analysis on academic library directors at master’s-granting colleges and universities. Why? Well, if a librarian wants to become a director some day, it would be nice if they had a map of what sort of work is most likely to best prepare them for the role. In addition, you can hardly walk three steps without tripping over a leadership institute nowadays. This research could actually inform those institutes as to where their applicants are most likely to have skill gaps, allowing them to better target both their audience and training opportunities.

I’m in the death throes of finishing this up; my dissertation advisor currently has a revised Chapter 4 (the data analysis) and is reviewing it. The dissertation will only go through Chapter 5, so I can see the finish line. I’m hoping to have the whole thing done, dusted, and degreed with a defense sometime in February, and to graduate and be Doctor Harris-Keith in May.

Research Project #4

This project does exactly the same thing as Project #3, but it collects data from academic library directors at baccalaureate-granting institutions instead of the master’s level schools. Why? Well, there are over 800 baccalaureate-only colleges. That’s a lot of academic library directors. It would be useful to know if the leadership development opportunities along their career paths mirrored directors at different institutions, or if they differ in some important way. Plus all of the reasons given for #3.

The Nutshell

In a nutshell (albeit a large one), that is my job. I love it. I enjoy teaching enormously, and I get jazzed at seeing the light bulbs go off in a class when students really start to understand things. I love helping a student on the edge of a breakdown find that they knew what to do all along, they just needed a wee bit of guidance. I love working with faculty, and seeing other grown folks nerd out about their love for their subject area, the way I do about librarianship. I get a kick out of finding intersections between my work and ways to improve teaching and learning in other disciplines. I enjoy reading journal articles by others researching in librarianship, and hearing about what my colleagues at CI and around the world are doing. There are always new ways to present old information, better teaching practices to test out, and new sparks of inspiration.

Most of all, I love that I get to be a part of a student’s college experience, hopefully in a way that empowers them and helps them toward graduation. I had the very good fortune to attend a college where the faculty were highly invested in helping us succeed and helping us find our passions, and I try to do my best to pass along that personal helping hand to each generation coming through college. I have a lot of questions about life, but wondering what sort of work I should do is not one of them.

Pondering the Digital Divide and e-Learning

Writing this book chapter on the digital divide made me consider my university’s current push for offering increased online learning opportunities. Because we serve students who generally come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, I’m wondering if administration isn’t going about this the wrong way.

Is it really about offering more online classes and more online-only degrees and gen-eds? Or would it be more useful to decrease the digital divide that exists within our student body, between the higher-income kids who grew up with computers and gadgetry and those who may have had to make-do with less access? Many of our students still don’t own computers and make constant use of those available in our student labs and library. Many of our students – at least, the ones I see in our library – are not terribly comfortable navigating technologies used in learning environments, including BlackBoard and the library databases they are expected to use to conduct their research. These are the students you are encouraging to sign up for newly developed online classes, often taught by professors with no prior online teaching experience?

The cynic in me wonders if this isn’t simply a ploy to look ‘up-to-date’ and simply schlep folks into online courses so we can open up our cramped classrooms a bit. We already have severe retention problems. Throwing students into an online learning environment, or giving them the impression that they already have the skills and understanding they need to operate successfully in such an environment when that is not true is worse than foolishness. My other concern is that students already have a difficult time asking for help. (Do you remember how much pride you had at 18?) We already know from various studies (and from librarian observation) that students tend to overestimate their tech-savvy when it comes to deal with judging and finding information. Knowing this, how can you in good conscience encourage these kids to jump into online learning when they may well not have the requisite skills? In an online classroom, there are few ways for a professor to see the “Hunh?” look on a student’s face. Knowing that you are dealing with an environment populated largely by students coming from underprivileged or low-access backgrounds, moving classes online should not be the first step in a successful push to rectify the digital divide. Ensuring that students develop core technology competencies early in their academic careers – even if that’s once they start college – would help.

I am not suggesting that online courses are *bad*. They are useful, and a great option for students who require more flexible schedules. However, there seems to be little acceptance at the administrative level that offering more online classes is not a panacea. It will not necessarily help retention (and may well harm it), and it may not even help the divide in digital skills if the students in the course don’t have the required skills to succeed in the first place. There seems to be a lot of assuming going on in higher education (or at least at my institution) with regards to bigger pushes for online course availability. And we all know what happens when you assume…

Given that there still exist severe divisions based on income level, class, and gender when discussing access to computer technology and digital learning, I have to say that I remain unconvinced that throwing kids into an online learning environment because you assume that’s what they want more of is not the answer. Getting them some basic technology and information literacy core competencies may be a start, though.

Info Lit Course: Musings

Coming from a private liberal arts background, I do have to admit that I didn’t immediately understand why universities would offer for-credit classes in information literacy. Isn’t all that information essentially interwoven through the courses students take? I mean, it’s essential for any discipline.

Let’s back up. I went to a very small, private, expensive (I will have student loans to bequeath my grandchildren) liberal arts college. You know the sort – kids who drive cars daddy bought practically (if not actually) new, who clerk at daddy’s law firm during the summers, and who don’t drink beer because frankly, that sort of thing is for state school fraternity boys – Crown and Jack welcome, all others will be booted at the door. On the other hand, it was an extraordinarily rigorous academic atmosphere: if you missed three classes, you automatically failed. Fifteen page papers were the norm. There was no such thing as multiple choice, and we regularly hobnobbed with professors afterhours. Our professors would go to the library and look at the books we had cited to be certain we weren’t just making up information and a page number in our citations. (No, really. I swear.) Information literacy may not have been called that as we learned it, but it was woven through our classes and education nonetheless, and our faculty actually enforced its application through rigorous academic training. When I was presented with the concept of info literacy in library school and asked what it was called, I said “Common sense.” (Yeah, I was totally that student.)

It comes as no surprise, then, that my alma mater pumps out folks who attend grad school as a matter of course. Now that I’m working in academia at a larger state school where absences go practically unnoticed, professors are overworked and multiple choice is a godsend, and papers rarely exceed 8-10 pages, I have to say I’m a teensy bit appalled at how easily student can slip through the system all the way to graduation and rarely come across anyone who challenges them to rigorously examine the information they use. This has made me reconsider my formerly skeptical stance on offering a for-credit information literacy course.

I mean, we offer a “Freshman Life” course for credit, and that pretty much teaches the kids how to come and go from school without getting hit by a bus, or taking candy from the old man in the van down by the river. It is not a terribly rigorous class, it covers a hodgepodge of basic life-skills topics, and is generally taught by staff members from around the university. If something like this can be touted as something that helps increase retention of out students who come in as borderline, how much better for them a class focusing on information literacy? Not just citation, but why we cite and why there are different ways to do it; not just a one-shot 45 minute instruction session on the difference between popular and scholarly sources, but time to actually delve into the source of information and its production so they become more knowledgeable consumers and users; not just saying “no Wikipedia or Google!” but actual academic assignments exploring the uses and shortcomings of those tools. There are a lot of things that aren’t covered in Freshman Comp because technically they don’t fall under tis rubric, but that students still need to be exposed to in an academic setting to be successful students.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has a retention problem. We know it, admin knows it, and they’re trying to cobble together a strategy that addresses it. having been here a year as a reference and instruction librarian, and seeing the absolutely lost faces begging for salvation during finals, I’m beginning to think that this may be an invaluable tool for these kids. Many of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Others come from low income backgrounds and can’t afford to go anywhere but a state school. Some students come in on a HOPE scholarship awarded to high school students who can scrape up a 21 on the ACT and a 3.0 high school GPA. The problem is that college is not high school, and a 3.0 in college is (arguably, I suppose) more difficult to obtain than the work that got them to college in the first place. Unless some of these students, who begin as borderline keepers to begin with, are given some extra tools to firm up their academic endeavors, a good many of them won’t make it.

I consider it my job as a librarian not only to find you the information you need, but to make sure I teach you just enough to empower you and find it yourself. hitting students at point of need at the reference desk is wonderful, but they’re not in learning mode then. They’re in OMGWTFBBQ emergencygimmearticlepaperdueHALP!!111!!11!!!eleven! mode. They’re not processing research steps. And the 50-minute one-shot is not enough to teach them how judgment of information is integrated through their entire lives, not just related to their 5 page argumentative essay on the death penalty.

Now, the question is, of course, whether or not a for-credit info lit class has any impact. I’ve printed out the bibliography of articles I want to read on it (thank you, ili listserv!). I’ll have to pitch it and will likely get pushback from it, since we don’t have enough library bodies as it is, and other faculty may see it as unnecessary.

Come September, when I can breathe again, I am going to seriously bring this up as a project to my bossladies. I absolutely want to expand our instruction program into upper level courses, and we’ll be working on that program plan this summer, among myriad other things. But I’d like to see an info lit course piloted, at least. Maybe I’ll make this part of my 3-year plan.