Archive for April, 2009

Asselin, M., & Kymes, A. (2007). A Critical Examination of Information Literacy Instruction During a Grade 9 Research Project. SIMILE: Studies In Media & Information Literacy Education, 7(4), 1-18. 

This excellent research article provides a clear, concise overview of the cognitive and critical views of information literacy in addition to a thorough study of the methods and outcomes of a collaborative information literacy approach to a grade 9 research project. This is the first real research-based paper I’ve found on critical information literacy and it is most welcome.

I’d like to share some key quotes from this paper:

“the conventional paradigms of information literacy disable students from engaging in authentic and sustained inquiry and from expanding their development of new literacies, particularly the critical new literacies that enable social change. Information literacy education needs to build on established frameworks to emphasize learning from not just about information processes.”

This last sentence really gets to the heart of things. Information literacy education needs to move away from the traditional skills-based approach that reinforces the idea that learning is all about finding the answers, to an approach that recognizes that the process of finding and selecting information is the most important part of genuine learning.

“In contrast to cognitive views of literacy as skills situated within individuals, a sociocultural view of literacy assumes that literacy practices are shaped by social contexts (Gee, 1991). From this perspective, information literacy is not an autonomous, neutral framework of processes, skills and strategies that can be learned by individuals, but is shaped by school discursive practices around research. Limburg (1999) found that dominant discursive practice in schools constructs research as a fact gathering task, rather than a genuine quest to learn. Other research shows that teaching information literacy is more about directing students through tasks than actually teaching information literacies (Leander, 2007; Limburg, 2005).”

From my experience, this is not, as you might hope or expect, any different in university than it is in the public school system. Actually, I’m amazed at how little importance or emphasis is placed on research at all. In many cases faculty simply provide students with a list of readings due to a perceived lack of time for research. This happens quite frequently in Master of Education courses where typically full term courses are offered in the space of 3-4 weeks.

“a critical perspective on information literacy draws from critical literacy studies and posits that information literacy is “not a framework but a standpoint, a way of being that treats texts … as an object of critical analysis as well as a source of learning and pleasure” (Kapitzke, 2005, p. 34). Learning to treat texts as critical objects of analyses is an urgent pedagogical issue as the majority of youth go online not only for pleasure but for school (Lenhard, Madden, & Hitlin, 2007; Media Awareness Network, 2005) and encounter unprecedented amounts of “unvetted” information. A central ability within this perspective is the deeper level of evaluating information that focuses on uncovering perspectives present and absent and identifying techniques used to influence readers. In accordance with New Literacies Studies, the larger purpose of information literacy in this view is transformative personal and social action and ultimately a means of redressing social inequities (New London Group, 2000).”

This is precisely why critical information and media literacy needs to play a central role in all levels of education. Education that relies on “experts” to provide vetted information to students does nothing to teach students how to think for themselves. Instead, it teaches students that they must rely on those in society who are seen as experts to tell them what is right and wrong, true and untrue.

“A critical perspective of information literacy instruction begins with the premise that a paradigm shift is necessary, not only in the meaning of information literacy but in the meanings of knowledge and pedagogy. In this view, knowledge is a generative process not a product; and knowledge creation entails uncovering and contesting socially powerful texts (Gilbert, 2005). “New pedagogy” means situating learning in authentic, complex and political issues, valuing all forms and modes of literacy and texts, and shifting the complete authority of the teacher to a more collaborative relationship among teacher, learner and text (Kalantzis, Varnava-Skoura & Cope, 2002).”

I’m in complete agreement, but I’m still left with the problem of how to make this a reality in my own teaching. I need to move beyond the one-time information literacy sessions to a course embedded model working in collaboration with faculty. Easier said than done.

“when we asked students why they thought they are learning how to do research their responses indicated vague understandings: “to help us learn” and “get us ready for being adults and having jobs.””

Not surprising really, but still depressing.

“A sociocultural perspective suggests that students in this study operated from a product, content driven view of research (Many, Fyfe, Lewis, & Mitchell, 1996; McGregor, 1995), suggesting a history of experiencing school discursive practices of research as fact gathering. They appeared to view school research as a job to get done and the teacher should smooth and speed that process along.”


“If schools are to prepare students for participating in a knowledge-based society then new ways of instruction in the literacies that are needed for building knowledge are essential (Lankshear & Knoebel, 2003). Expanding literacy instruction to include information literacy will be most empowering for students when it is conceived as a repertoire of flexible social practices and ways of thinking that enable productive lives and lifelong learning. It is particularly urgent that instruction in the new literacies of the Internet are provided for all students as neglecting these literacies perpetuates social inequities (Leu et al., n.d). All educators need to move towards a pedagogy of paradigmatic cases (Knoebel & Lankshear, 2007) of new information literacies and ensure that all students learn both the technical new literacies necessary to participate in a knowledge-based society, and the critical “ethos stuff ” of the how and why of knowledge creation.”


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I’ll be co-presenting at the Dalhousie Conference on University Teaching and Learning at the end of April. We are still working out the details of the presentation, but an abstract is available here. I’m quite excited about this for a couple of reasons. First, is that this will be my first conference presentation and the second is that I’m just so damn happy we managed to get this thing off the ground.

“This thing” is what has eventually become known as Connections: Acadia’s First Year Option. This has really been a labour of love for me and everyone involved. A small group of professors, librarians, and instructors came together after a symposium on the first year experience at Acadia in January of 2008. I realized at this symposium that there were a lot of people on campus who were really interested in doing something unique and innovative that was focused on really engaging students and getting them passionate about learning. I didn’t want all that energy and those ideas to go to waste, so I contacted a number of individuals that I thought would be interested and we gathered at the University Club to throw around some ideas. It took some time for these ideas to coalesce and form into something concrete – something that we could present to others to start to get broader support. The process was far from easy (have you ever tried to get a room full of academics to agree on anything?) and it is this process we will be discussing at the conference.

It is Connections itself that I am most excited about. I won’t go into all the details of how the first year option will work, but I would like talk about it some and would welcome any feedback. As I already mentioned, our main goal in creating Connections was to offer students an experience in their first year that would encourage them to get passionate about learning for the sake of learning. We wanted to give them something that was non-disciplinary (eventually we used the term transdisciplinary), that got them to engage with big ideas, that would connect them with the local community, with each other, and with faculty. We wanted them to realize that knowledge is dynamic and alive – that they play a role in its construction. We wanted this to be a truly transformative experience that would have a huge impact on their next three years of study and hopefully the rest of their lives.

Far too many students today(and people in general) see a university degree in purely practical terms. Will this get me a good job when I’m finished? What do I need to do to get good grades and get through these four years? What do my professors want and how can I give it to them? We wanted to give our first year students a chance to discover that learning can have real significance to their own lives and the lives of others. We wanted our students to see more than grades and degrees.

After much lengthy discussion and concessions necessary to fit this option into the existing structure of the university and to overcome certain objections, we eventually found something we are all happy with. This is how it will work:

A small group of no more than 50 students will take 3 block courses together per term. The remaining two courses students can choose for themselves. The block courses will each run for 4 weeks and will be tied together by 3 major projects that span the term. The courses for the pilot year are: Popular Culture and You; Human and Environmental Diversity; A Guided Tour of Our Universe; Self Identification: Narrative, Play and Performance; Perspectives on Climate Change; and Motives and Ethics of War. All courses will be team taught by two faculty members from completely different disciplines. Pop Culture will be taught by a Music instructor and a librarian; H&ED will be taught by a Sociology professor and a Biology instructor; Universe will be taught by a Physics professor and a Kinesiology professor (also a published poet and philosopher); Self-Identification by an English Professor and Rec Management/Kinesiology professor; Climate Change by Business and Geology professors, and War by a Classicist and a Biologist.

Each semester students will be graded on each of the individual modules as well as 3 major projects. Students will write a major research paper (with personal guidance from one of the course instructors and a librarian), be involved in a community project related to one of the modules, and give a major presentation (or public performance of some kind).

More details are available on the website for anyone who is interested and I would be happy to answer any questions. We are still looking for students for September if anyone knows any potential students who might be interested. If anyone is planning to be at the Dal conference, please drop into our session. I’ll post here to report on how it goes.

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This is the second article in my growing critical information literacy bibliography. I was planning to cover one article a week, but have realised it would take me 3 years to finish the bibliography as it stands now. I’ll try to cover at least 3 a week and see if I can’t speed things up a little.

Alkan, N., & Ankara, T. (2008). The Importance and Influence of Philosophical Thinking for Librarians. Library Philosophy and Practice (e-journal), 207. 

This is where a critical practice of librarianship needs to begin. If we don’t take the time to seriously question what we do as a profession, we will never fully participate in changing society to the degree we are able. Overall, this article is a bit uneven and not directly related to critical information literacy, but there a few interesting things I would like to share. The authors present a number of reasons why philosophical thinking for librarians is important today. Here are a few of the more interesting:

PT maintains the connection of the librarian with theory and provides a means to strengthen the theory-practice relationship.

PT prepares the librarian for changes and innovations.

PT may motivate librarians to challenge problems that degenerate the society to which they belong.

PT equips the librarian with the discipline and habit of questioning why.

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Agada, J. (2001). Deconstructing the At-Risk Student Phenomenon: Can Librarian Values Salvage Education for the 21st Century? In H. Thompson (Ed.), Crossing the Divide: Proceedings of the 10th National Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries (pp. 81-88). Association of College Research Libraries. 

From the introduction:

“This paper offers a critical perspective on the at-risk student phenomenon, and its implications for academic libraries. It contends that the focus of reform efforts on learner deficiencies, rather than inequities in the learning and social relations in society, position schools to reproduce, rather than eliminate risk factors in education. Educational practices, which sustain cultural dissonance and lowered expectations for at-risk students will be examined for illustration. These practices are then juxtaposed and contrasted with the librarian values of social equity, and cultural diversity. The enhanced instructional role for academic libraries offers the library profession an opportunity to impact the educational system with its values. Strategies for doing this are proffered.”

Agada does an excellent job of making his case against the education system’s efforts to address the needs of at-risk students. Strangely, though, he doesn’t mention the essential work on the issue of cultural and social reproduction in schools by Pierre Bourdieu. I would highly recommend reading the following articles by Bourdieu to supplement the material presented by Agada:

Bourdieu, P. (1973). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In R. K. Brown (Ed.), Knowledge, education and cultural change: papers in the sociology of education (pp. 487–510). Taylor & Francis.

Bourdieu, P. (1974). The school as a conservative force: Scholastic and cultural inequalities. In J. Eggleston (Ed.), Contemporary research in the sociology of education (pp. 32-46). Methuen.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. In J. E. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory of the Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241-58). Greenwood Press. 

Agada does provide a very nice quote from Gordon and Yowell which sums up the problem succintly:

“The school learning environment affirms and rewards those who exhibit the dominant cultural capital, which the teacher often exhibits by virtue of her race, ethnicity or class. White middle class male students are therefore better socialized in the cultural capital espoused by the school. In contrast, at-risk students experience cultural dissonance due to the conflict between what is learned from the home environment, and the demands and expectations of the hegemonic educational system (Gordon andYowell 1994).”

In terms of the implications for academic libraries, Agada draws attention to the disconnect between the often stated values of the profession and its practices:

“The library profession shares with education, the contradictions inherent in its professional value systems and practice. For example, glaring inequities in access to library services in the society attest to unfulfilled promises of
democratic access to information and social equity.”

Agada questions the idea of library neutrality (which reminds me that I still need to get hold of a copy of Questioning Library Neutrality, Edited by Alison Lewis) and makes the case that academic libraries also play a role in reproducing the inequalities present in the dominant culture:

“In supporting the curricula needs of their patrons, academic libraries have focused on building collections of “quality” and “authoritative” resources that portray the racist, sexist and class interests of mainstream literature. Free and democratic access to such collections helps to sustain cultural dissonance for at-risk students and their communities, and further undermine their self-concepts and sense of self-efficacy.”

Agada challenges us to work against all obstacles to actively practice what we preach: “the librarian values of cultural diversity, social equity and democratic access to information.” He leaves us with a number of strategies.

“Academic librarians ought to educate themselves about at-risk students and their communities, and support research and documentation of knowledge about them. They should also advocate infusion of critical information literacy skills and culturally diverse content in all academic curricula and library resources. Secondly, as academic librarians engage in their instructional roles, they must provide opportunities to connect with every student in the class by using curricula content and teaching methods that draw on students’ cultural backgrounds, experiences, interests and learning styles, irrespective of subject matter being taught (Agada 1998a).”

“When students come with diverse cultural backgrounds and life conditions, democratic (physical) access to information alone is unlikely to equalize opportunities for all. Rawls’ theory of social justice argues for going beyond provision of equal opportunities to ensuring diverse but optimal learning outcomes for each student (1971).”

“Although all meaningful learning must be contextualized within the cultural capital of each student, the educational system also needs to emphasize the acquisition of multiple perspectives— so that students can appreciate the perspectives of and empathize with the Other.”

“Working with a diverse staff would also help majority staff adapt to a multicultural patron body. Atrisk
students should therefore be hired as aids and trained to teach library use to their peers.”

These very welcome strategies should help prompt a discussion within academic library units about the best way to address the needs of all our users. Missing from this paper, however, are real strategies for incorporating these values into our instruction. This is something I’ve been struggling with for some time. I simply can’t seem to get away from the one-off library sessions in which I usually have no more than an hour or two (at most) to address every aspect of library use and information literacy. These sessions are seldom more than broad overviews and quick how-to’s. I’ve made very strong connections with many faculty members who are supportive of incorporating aspects of critical information literacy into their courses, but as of yet, I have been unable to bring these ideas to the classroom. Unless we are able to break through this barrier, the answer to the title question will be no.

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I’ve been silent on this blog for a long time, but I’ve continued to work on my research into information literacy and critical pedagogy. You can see my shared references here.

Feel free to add comments, make suggestions, and use as you see fit. I intend to make posts on every article in the bibliography as I work or rework my way through them. Hopefully, with this to keep me focused, I’ll be blogging here regularly again.

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