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Information-literacy programmes and course curricula:
the case for integration

Author - Anne Ambrose and Brian Gillespie

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Why is information literacy important?

The advent of the internet, along with various other electronic and digital resources, has highlighted the issue of information literacy. How do we deal with the information explosion to which we are subjected on a daily basis? In particular how do our students learn to exploit the range of resources available to advance their studies and research?

New methods of information generation also cause problems. Traditional printed forms of information are subject to a variety of quality-assurance processes – reputable publishers, authors with academic credentials etc. None of these quality-assurance mechanisms can be guaranteed with web-based information. The user must apply a critical faculty. Students need the skills to question the provenance, accuracy and reliability of the material. Ownership of information, copyright and the potential for plagiarism are also issues that students need to be fully aware of.

New learning and teaching methodologies concentrate on the concept of student-centred learning and the independent learner. Students are encouraged to become problem solvers, to employ critical thinking, recognise their information needs, and to locate and evaluate the information required to address the issue at hand. It is unwise to expect that students, who for the main arrive in college without ever having undertaken serious scholarly research, can somehow acquire the complex set of skills by a magical process of osmosis.

Emerging technologies are also providing new opportunities for teachers to deliver courses in more flexible formats – online delivery using WebCT and Blackboard for example. Here again the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching. It is clear that students with effective learning skills, including information skills, will have an advantage when undertaking flexibly delivered courses.

The Information Society Commission points out that‘As access to information becomes easier and less expensive, it becomes more crucial that we have the skills and competencies relating to the selection and use of that information’ (ISC, 2002)

In this context, it is significant that the study by Kathryn Ray and Joan Day found that ‘large numbers of students are leaving university without the necessary transferable skills to cope in an information based society’ (Ray and Day, 1998)

Why should information literacy skills be integrated into course curricula?

The concept of the ‘teachable moment’ is well documented in the literature of education – that moment when a skill is required and the student is receptive. In this context the skill is more likely to be learned. Information-literacy courses need to be seen by the student as directly relevant to their course work, incorporating a set of skills that will be useful to their projects, assignments and general research activities on an on-going basis. To achieve this ideal, courses should be curriculum based. Even more ideally, students should be required to participate, and work should be graded or credit received.

In 2001 the UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) commissioned a project known as the Big Blue. The aim of the project was to survey current practice in information-skills training in higher education, and to propose recommendations to ensure a coherent approach to the development of an information-literate student population in the UK. Big Blue is quite clear on how this can be achieved:
’For information skills programmes to be successful, a collaborative approach by all involved in the process must be adopted. This includes library, computing and academic staff. Information skills should be integrated into the curriculum rather than be taught as a separate entity’ (Big Blue, 2001: 4)

There is a body of literature in the field of information science which suggests that skills associated with the use of information are best taught as a process and in the context of a real task. This task is usually one associated with the content of the curriculum. The most effective way of delivering information skills is for all stakeholders in the process to work collaboratively, and for information skills to be integrated into the curriculum. A collaborative and integrated approach to curriculum design is needed, and delivery of courses must be based on close co-operation between academics, librarians and staff-development colleagues. Librarians need first-hand knowledge of the curriculum if they are to negotiate effectively with teachers to develop information-literacy skills within different courses. To this end, librarians should be members of, or observers at, relevant course boards and should be involved in all aspects of new course design.

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