Thursday, 1 July 2010

SCONUL information literacy study

I had an unexpected invitation to attend a meeting of the Society of College, National and University Libraries Association (SCONUL) to discuss ideas for a large scale study of the impact of information literacy programs in higher education. I thought at first that the invite had come through Alison Mackenzie, who I invited to our second lidu seminar in Glasgow last March, but it turned out that Cathie Jackson who was organising the meeting for SCONUL had been googling around looking for people who might be interested, and found us.

The meeting clashed with the first afternoon of the writing development in higher education conference I was booked to go to (more of that in my next post) but I was intrigued enough to want to attend. They'd sent out a proposal for a study that had been written by Ralph Catts from the University of Stirling (here is an example of his work on information literacy indicators), which I found challenging on a number of fronts, not least because it draws on a highly empirical/experimental tradition of educational research which I had not previously thought appropriate to the study of literacy. Information literacy, of course, develops from information skills, traditionally the province of libraries and historically considered to be testable via a pre-test -- intervention -- posttest model.

After a preliminary discussion with a colleague in the OU library I went to the meeting with the idea that the OU could definitely contribute to the more qualitative case study aspects of the proposal. In the event, two of the other preliminary speakers also expressed concerns about the theoretical and methodological feasibility of determining the contribution to learning, or student attitude, or retention, of information literacy programs. Not to mention determining what constitutes an information literacy intervention in the first place. Ralph himself was completely open to discussion along those lines and the afternoon was very productive.

My own introduction drew attention to the experience of writing centres in the USA who found their funding cut by their universities when 'impact' studies proved inconclusive. For some managers no evidence of value clearly equals no value. I also talked about the work of our lidu partners in the 'Learning Literacies in the Digital Age' project with regard to information literacy and the way it tends to be supported in UK colleges and universities (by central support services like libraries, as opposed to academic and media literacies pretend to be located within the subject curriculum).

In the general discussion, there was some support for the idea that the impact of information literacy might be more easily measured in terms of its influence on the input to student learning, including on academic practice, rather than directly on learning outcomes. We also discussed possible sources for funding for a study, including JISC, the EU framework seven, and a possible ESRC seminar series. It was left with Alison and Cathie and Ralph to summarise what we had been talking about and to propose an onward strategy for developing a study and a bid for funding.

We will definitely be re-inviting SCONUL c olleagues to the OU lidu seminar in October, where Esther Hargittai's large-scale research on information literacy skills will be of interest to them.

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