Challenges & Opportunities I

The information overload faced by today's learners and researchers is changing the way people look for information. For many, the search engine has become their 'library'. However, this era of self-sufficiency presents a number of challenges for information professionals and teaching staff trying to prepare students to become good researchers within formal education and beyond.

1. Awareness of the skills gaps
One of the key challenges is raising students' self-awareness. A study on the information habits of college students by OCLC (2002) showed they rate their own searching skills favourably, with nearly two-thirds strongly feeling they know best what information to select from the internet, and only 4% feeling the information isn't good enough for their assignments. This confidence, however, does not tally with research into the reality of students' IL skills. Moreover, evidence suggests that academic staff and professionals are turning to Google Scholar. For instance, in the medical field, Google Scholar attracts around seven times more visitors to the British Medical Journal than does PubMed (Medline) (Giustini, 2005). The problem is there are gaps in Google Scholar's coverage, of which many won't be aware. The big question here is how you engage users who already think their search skills are adequate. For those in full-time education, IL training should be embedded firmly into the curriculum (see point 2). For teaching staff and professional users, professional resistance may prevent this kind of solution.

2. Embed IL firmly into the curriculum
Recent interest in IL has arisen out of a need for students to be able to exploit the vast amount of digital information at their disposal. These skills in finding, evaluating and correctly using information are essential to the development of successful students, researchers, and lifelong learners. Given that we know that most students will bypass the library when searching for information, it is imperative that they are taught the skills to evaluate critically the information they come across.

There is a tendency for IL training to be seen as the librarian's responsibility, and there are many library-led initiatives to impart generic IL skills, such as website evaluation, search operators, and library use. These courses will tend to be offered on a voluntary basis, or in conjunction with the few faculty staff the librarians have managed to persuade to "buy into" the course (Grafstein, 2002). Given that most users have great confidence in their information skills, voluntary courses are unlikely to be highly subscribed, and collaborative efforts will have limited success unless staff are given time and resources to implement them. The way to ensure these programmes are successful is to embed IL skills into the key objectives of the institution. In turn, these objectives can then be cascaded down into the learning outcomes of each course, with time and resources being allocated appropriately for their implementation and assessment. Only then will IL receive the recognition it deserves.

This isn't to say that librarians shouldn't be involved. They are uniquely positioned to teach many of the requisite IL skills. SCONUL highlights seven key headline skills in Information Skills in Higher Education: A SCONUL Position Paper (1999):

1. The ability to recognise a need for information
2. The ability to distinguish ways in which the information ‘gap’ may be addressed
3. The ability to construct strategies for locating information
4. The ability to locate and access information
5. The ability to compare and evaluate information obtained from different sources
6. The ability to organise, apply and communicate information to others in ways appropriate
7. The ability to synthesise and build upon existing information, contributing to the creation of new knowledge

Librarians are best placed to teach the generic skills involved in points 1 to 5: articulating a search, putting together a search strategy, and locating and evaluating information. Points 6 and 7 are concerned with the ability to synthesize and build on existing knowledge, and I believe that these skills, in particular, are best served through collaboration between librarians and teaching staff, using a more subject-specific approach. One of the tenets of constructivist theory is that learners need knowledge to learn, and that knowledge builds on pre-existing knowledge. The critical thinking required to help learners determine how new information fits into the existing information landscape can best be taught in the context of the discipline itself. According to constructivist principles, it is also important to create an authentic task (Savery and Duffy, 2001). This will be most successfully achieved by situating learning in the real-world environment of the student's subject.

According to the CIBER report, information skills correlate positively with SAT scores and subsequent grades (Nicholas et al., 2007), so there is an incentive for teaching staff to ensure their students become IL-proficient. Ongoing assessment of the impact of IL teaching on learning outcomes is key to ensuring the continued success and funding of such a programme.

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