By desire, not default: information literacy best practice

Cardiff Central Library

The venue: Cardiff Central Library

On 1 August I went along to Cardiff Central Library for an Information Literacy Best Practice Day organised by the CyMAL-funded Welsh Information Literacy Project (WILP). One of the great things about the social web, for me, is that you don’t always have to write a lengthy report yourself: if you wait a few days, someone somewhere will, with luck, share their notes with you. So I’m grateful to Rebecca Mogg for her write-up here and to the WILP team for their Twitter story.

Here I’ll single out a few of my highlights and personal reflections on the day. It was all interesting but I’m going to focus on the technology aspects, and the interplay (as I see it) between information literacy and digital literacy.

What is information literacy?

One definition of information literacy (IL) is “knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner.” Information literacy comes into play, in a more or less structured way, whether you are doing a primary school project, blue-skies research or applying for a job. The Welsh Information Literacy Project has devised a curriculum framework spanning all levels from school to university, and has generated a set of Agored Cymru units covering entry level to level 4. The Cardiff event aimed to showcase examples of where the IL curriculum had been applied in schools and public libraries.

What has information literacy got to do with digital?

Good question. I see information literacy and digital literacy as being different in emphasis, but very closely related. Perhaps the main distinction for me is that information literacy is a broader concept, and it entails an understanding that digital is not always the best or only approach to solving an information problem. There are other ways of looking at the relationship, for example the Open University uses a Digital and Information Literacy Framework which sees IL as an aspect of digital literacy. At a simple level, I see technology being key to IL on two levels: a) technology presents an ongoing challenge to IL advocates to ensure their work remains current in the face of changing digital media and behaviours; b) it offers new opportunities to raise awareness and demonstrate the relevance of information literacy. I think there could also be lessons which digital literacy advocates could learn from the information literacy community.

Some might see digital literacy as detracting from the information skills agenda which libraries have worked hard to pursue with their academic communities. However, I think information literacy has to be a digital practice to the extent that information (whether textual, numeric, graphic, audio or video) takes a digital form. And whilst arguably you may not need digital resources to complete a piece of work, you may still need to use digital media to communicate it. Interestingly, while writing this post I came across an article tweeted by @Jisc from Forbes.com called We need more EdTech, but less technology in the classroom. In it, Jordan Shapiro argues, “The fact is that education has already been automated. Tests, quizzes, textbooks, and Powerpoints are all products of a technological way of knowing the world” and concludes that “Formats go in and out of fashion.”

Here at Jisc RSC Wales we’ve taken a close interest in the Welsh Information Literacy Project from its inception in 2009, but my personal involvement with it has been at a distance for the last couple of years. So, as I made my way to Cardiff, I was keen to hear how it had all turned out, how well the cross-sector collaboration had worked and, most importantly for me, how digital developments had influenced the project, given the rapid evolution of social media and mobile devices during its lifespan.

Digital by default desire

Following a hearfelt opening speech from Mandy Powell, Lisa Thomas told an uplifting story of Get Caerphilly Online/Dewch Ar-lein Caerffili. She reminded us that whilst digital inclusion initiatives often focus on access (“digital by default”) it’s vital to ensure people actually have the motivation (“digital by desire”). The emphasis is on tuning in to the problem your learner/customer is trying to solve, then giving them the tools to do it. Using mobile devices to access information for job applications or online shopping is one of the popular topics at Caerphilly libraries on their ‘Digital Fridays’. Marketing is a clearly a big part of the initiative, with word of mouth being particularly important (talking of which, you can follow Lisa and co on Twitter at @CaerphillyLibs and @GetCOnline).

Addressing real-life problems

Other speakers from public libraries talked about how information literacy skills training had helped their staff provide a better service. These skills did not necessarily focus on digital information, but they did include a number of quite complex skills that involved knowing when and when not to rely on digital media alone. I was fascinated by Erica Sheppard-Aldecoa’s thoughtful account of how she had used the information literacy qualifications framework to structure her research at Macmillan Monmouthshire’s Cancer Support and information Service, where she had to source reliable information on complementary therapies and cancer (not a subject well served by the web). Necessary skills included knowing how and when to pick up the phone to talk to someone, how to judge the authority of an organisation, and how to communicate sensitive information to a customer, e.g. when discussing serious illness.

School library collaboration

Slide entitled Mapping Progress

Information literacy intervention has helped improve reading at Holyhead High School

The presentations from schools were great examples of librarians working in partnership with other professionals. At Holyhead High School, we heard from Sioned Jones, Literacy Co-ordinator, how information literacy has been introduced not for its own sake, but as part of a drive to improve reading attainment in a particular group of pupils. I was struck by the fact that whilst gaining information literacy and reading skills, children also discovered the value of identifying and talking to new people around the school who share their interests, thus building their own learning network. I also enjoyed the talk from Myfanwy Jones at Conwy Libraries, especially her emphasis on using libraries and information literacy to aid transition from primary to secondary education, and on how the librarians worked with teachers to make the event fun for pupils.

My main takeaways

  • The passionate enthusiasm of many speakers for their work was infectious! They were clearly able to immerse themselves in the world of their learners and identify with their desire to read and overcome hurdles, whether that means applying for a job or doing a history project. The speakers talked about building a very close, face-to-face relationship with the learner. In other sectors, where we are often dealing with large groups, how should staff achieve that same bond of trust and the ability to listen to the learner, who may interact with them only online? I can see this being more of a challenge for FE and HE staff in the future.I would have liked to hear a bit more about how FE and HE had engaged with the project, especially since project management had transferred from Cardiff University to Coleg Llandrillo. However I later learned that WILP has already run a best practice event in North Wales in January (see materials here) with FE/HE input, while CLiC (Cardiff Libraries in Co-operation) recently ran a successful Teachmeet on information literacy with college and university sessions (for info see Siona Murray’s blog post). However, it was good to hear from Cardiff and  Vale College that the Agored IL units have been used successfully to support and validate the professional skills of their Learning Resource Centre staff. I was also interested to hear that WILP has done some awareness raising with PGCE students and aims to extend its contact with Schools of Education.
  • Whilst a few of us were using smartphones, tablets and Twitter during the event, and some project partners mentioned using social media to engage customers, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion about mobile learning and its place in information literacy. One participant, who had made successful use of QR codes in a public library setting, raised the subject of apps and there was a suggestion that librarians could have a role in recommending apps, just as they recommend other resource types. I would also have liked to hear a bit more about the potential for open badges to validate and encourage IL and the role of information literacy in employability. Perhaps that’s a topic for further exploration).
Baby looking at iPad

Image courtesy of Steve Paine http://www.flickr.com/photos/umpcportal/

  • I liked the way many speakers focussed on the need to tune into the learner’s motivation, and let the information literacy journey develop from that, rather than imposing an overly rigid process. It could be that the success of the WILP framework to date lies in its flexibility to adapt to many different settings, and in the fluency with which librarians and other professionals can relate the framework to real-world demands. Flexibility is also key to effective professional relationships, and clearly some great success stories have come about when information literacy champions have been prepared to collaborate. I think there may be some lessons here for those seeking to champion digital literacy: I was in a webinar recently where digital literacy was described as the ‘broccoli’ of education: you know it’s good for you but it can end up being left on the side of the plate.
  • Once hooked, though, learners can make the best advocates. My favourite soundbite of the day came from a public library, where a woman in her eighties (I think) was quoted as saying she was glad to have lived long enough to see the wonderful things technology can do. How I would love to see that quote posted on billboards across every county in Wales!
  • Libraries have undoubtedly forged a path as the experts in finding and evaluating information, but on the whole (in the academic sector at any rate) they have not always staked out a role in advising on the presentation and communication of information, digitally or otherwise (with the notable exception of referencing). This may be a pragmatic approach, given the fact that other professionals may have responsibility for teaching these skills, I wonder whether there is room for staff teaching information literacy to get more involved in the creative skills of manipulating, publishing and promoting their own information, particularly where it can help advocacy and partnerships. I’d be really interested to know of examples of where this is already happening.

WILP continues to Spring 2014 and you can keep in touch on Twitter at @Welsh_Info_Lit or via the website. Thank you to all involved in the Cardiff event and I wish the project staff every success as they see phase 4 through its final stages. Let’s hope it is a springboard for further work. From what I can see, the skills involved in finding, evaluating and communicating information – digitally and otherwise – have never been more useful.

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