Integrated Information Literacy: Issues in Implementation

Geoffrey Allen

November, 2008


Having spent ten years as a public school teacher, including five years as a school librarian, I have developed a strong interest in information literacy. A major part of my work as librarian was to guide the school, staff and students, in an understanding of information literacy and all that it entails. For five years I worked with the school community to implement programs reflecting the current best practices in information literacy. Along the way I faced many difficulties and barriers to success. Most of these I was able to overcome with time and practice, but not all. There perhaps is no cure for several of the problems I encountered – such as funding – at least not at the school level. The successes I did have provided me with a better understanding of what is involved in implementing an integrated information literacy program.

My previous experience in the field was primarily limited to the elementary and middle school sector of education. I was curious to see what the situation might be like at the academic level. Do universities face the same or even similar problems? What sorts of measures might there be to overcome the obstacles to success? What sorts of programming exists in the universities? I discovered that there are both differences and similarities between the two sectors, but many more similarities than differences. It has also become clear that at any level, the most crucial element of a program's success is having administrative support. There are far too many people, resources, and variables involved in the programs and their settings to assign specific, easy-to-follow guidelines that can be applied district wide, let alone provincially or nationally. The burden of programming, therefore, falls upon the individual institution or site. For an integrated program to be truly successful even at one institution, it requires the unified participation of the whole population, or at least a good portion of it, and that necessitates the authority of leadership at several levels, especially the top, to make it happen.

Information Literacy

Briefly stated, information literacy is "the ability to access, evaluate, and apply information effectively to situations requiring decision making, problem solving, or the acquisition of knowledge" (Young & Harmony, 1999, p. 1). In the United Kingdom, the Society of College, National and University Libraries has defined what they call the seven pillars of information literacy:

  1. The ability to recognise a need for information
  2. The ability to distinguish ways in which the information "gap" may be addressed (e.g. selecting resources most suitable for task at hand)
  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 to the situation
  7. The ability to synthesise and build upon existing information, contributing to the creation of new knowledge (SNOCUL, 2007)

Because of the complexities of the thought processes involved with information literacy, it is often associated with critical thinking skills:

For students, information literacy skills lead to independent and student-centric learning, rather than a reliance on the teacher to provide answers to questions or problems. This in turn creates a greater responsibility towards their own learning that helps them become dynamic learners and thinkers who are creative, analytical and efficient, instead of mere regurgitators of facts (Mokhtar & Majid, 2006, p. 32).

As part of a solid education, students need well-developed information literacy programs in which they are required to find a wide range of ideas and opinions on their subject, evaluate the resources to find the most relevant titles, analyse and synthesise the materials, and use their broadened understanding to develop new opinions and ideas of their own. The process promotes nuanced approach to study in which bias and differing opinions are embraced. It leads to a deeper understanding of the topic, and leads to a pedagogically sound attitude towards intellectual property. This in turn can have a strong influence to decrease instances of plagiarism, a growing concern in our age of user-ready data seemingly supplied on demand through Google.

The wide range of skills and abilities involved in information literacy must be developed over time; there is simply too much to be learned for students to cover all of the ideas in a single course. In fact, there are entire programs of study in information literacy, though these programs are geared towards a limited number of specialised students. Generally, as the complexity of thoughts and research tasks required of student increases through their academic progress, so must their ability to handle the materials. Furthermore, technology changes continually, and our access to materials expands at what some consider an almost alarming rate. Lessons, therefore, cannot be limited to a single time in the academic progress, and instructors should not assume that the skills required for their courses have been taught in the past. School aged children may be introduced to the basics of an online catalogue. High school students may return to the catalogue to develop more advanced search skills including the use of Boolean operators and phrase searching. University students may expand their knowledge to use a wide range of online catalogues such as the Online Computer Library Centre's WorldCat, rather than limiting their searches to the institution's collection.

The skills involved in information literacy are principles of scholarship that apply to virtually every field of study. The abilities developed through a strong information literacy program are life skills that can aid the learners throughout their academic careers and long after they have left the educational setting. The skills, therefore, should be taught to all students as part of a sound education.

Approaches to Teaching Information Literacy

The study of information literacy can take many forms. As mentioned above, there are entire programs of study in the field. These, however, are beyond the scope of this paper. Even limiting the focus to programs that integrate information literacy into the broader educational experience reveals various levels of programming. The most typical form of inclusion is what I will call an ad hoc method: occasional lessons offered by the course instructor or by the librarian at the request of the course instructor. This is not a system-wide approach to information literacy, but is based on a given teacher's motivation to include information literacy lessons in their course.

The ad hoc approach to information literacy seems to be the one most commonly found in the educational sector today. Most schools and universities have a few instructors who feel that information literacy is important to their classes. Most librarians understand the importance of information literacy, and seek out ways to include lessons wherever they can. There are several limitations to this form of instruction. Some instructors will schedule an occasional lesson with the librarian, but it is not a required component of the curriculum, so only a few teachers request information literacy sessions. This means that many students miss out on the lessons, and can in fact get through their entire academic career with only limited instruction on information literacy. Another shortcoming of the ad hoc method is in how students view the usefulness or importance of the lessons. Ad hoc lessons are often perceived by students as incidental to their real learning rather than being a component of it. A side lesson on using databases, for example, can often be seen as nothing more than an extra, a frill that might be useful but isn't necessarily required for the completion of an assignment, especially when the lesson is delivered days or weeks before the assignment (Young & Harmony, 1999, p. 29).

Teaching models in which information literacy is embedded directly into the course curriculum is, as many experts declare, the optimal way of teaching the skills (Ellis & Whatley, 2008; McGuinness, 2007; Mokhtar & Majid, 2006; Nimon, 2001, Young & Harmony, 1999). When instructors and librarians work together to develop lessons incorporating information literacy directly into the assignments themselves, the skills take on a new meaning for students; they become a central part of the assignment and are evaluated as part of the working process. In this way the lessons become a part of the focus for the students, and are presented in a meaningful context. Students have a vested interest in developing the skills, and are much more apt to make use of the ideas presented to them in the lessons. At the elementary level, these sorts of programs are often called "partnering" or "partnered" programs.

Difficulties in integration

Although most experts in the field of information literacy espouse the integrated or partnered model as the optimal form of instruction, it has not become the standard form of program delivery. There are a large number of obstacles that get in the way of integration. Some of these, such as restraints on finances and time, teacher overload and uncertainty, I have witnessed at the public school level. The following is an explanation of some of the principal difficulties as I have encountered them. There are undoubtedly several other challenges that I do not mention, and regional variations on the ones I do. The following, however, serves as an outline of some of the key factors.

Financial restraints:

An integrated information literacy program, simply put, costs money. If we are going to ask our students to read from a wide variety of sources, print and electronic, we have to make those resources available to them and in sufficient numbers for the entire class or group. Schools need decently stocked library shelves, and more importantly today, adequate access to computer technology. Retrofitting old school buildings to house computer labs has been a slow process, and many schools still have sub-standard set-ups. Teaching tools such as data projectors are often considered a luxury rather than a necessity. Many schools that do have computer labs are struggling with older computer technology which they cannot afford to up-date as regularly as the technology demands, leaving staff and students feeling frustrated and unenthusiastic.

While the resources can be expensive for an information literacy program, these costs would exist for the institution regardless of whether the programming was integrated or not. The biggest cost difference with an integrated model is that the program is staff heavy. Partnered programs have the schools' teacher-librarian working in conjunction with the classroom teacher to deliver lessons. For the duration of the program, both the regular teacher and the teacher-librarian service each class, halving the student to teacher ratio. Even though the teacher-librarian is able to work with multiple classes over the course of the year, the arrangement requires an additional staff member that many schools simply cannot afford. In times of fiscal restraint for school boards, librarians and library programs are often the first to be cut. Even where teacher-librarians and library programs do exist, time restrains in staffing models often require the teacher-librarian to have scheduled classes as prep delivery to relieve other teachers rather than allowing time for the staff to work together.

Staff training:

Information literacy is a specialty subject which has long been an interest of professional librarians but not necessarily the broader populace. Public school librarians, for the most part, are teachers who have moved into the library part way through their careers. They may have teacher training, but only limited library training. Some school boards, such as the Toronto District School Board where I worked required their teacher-librarians to the take a course in librarianship, but that single mandatory course covers all aspects of running a school library. Such a course must cover as many aspects of librarianship as possible, and participants receive only a brief overview of collection management, literacy, circulation, cataloguing, technology competencies, and the great many aspects of the role. Information literacy, therefore, can barely be touched upon. Most school librarians only develop a strong understanding of information literacy if they see it as a particular interest for themselves or their school, and pursue the subject more on their own. A strong understanding of the subject and the best ways of teaching it are not widely spread in the public educational system.

Curriculum disincentive:

In Canada, the public school curriculum falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial governments, and so varies from province to province. In Ontario, where I taught, the curriculum was heavily revised in the 1990s, and teachers are now charged with delivering a large and complex set of specific skills and ideas at each grade level. The curriculum documents each cover an individual area of study such as mathematics, language art, science and technology, the arts, social studies, and several others. Each document provides a complete course of study for the discipline over the full elementary school (grades one through eight) or high school (grades nine through twelve) program. Each document was created by experts in their field, and provides a solid foundation in the subject over the twelve-year school program, but there seems to have been little effort put into creating a comprehensive package at each grade level. There is not enough integration of material across disciplines, and not enough thought put into how to fit all the curriculum points together. The upshot is that teachers now have an overwhelming amount of information to convey to their classes. By my last count, there were over 450 specific curriculum points that junior level students were expected to master in 190 school days.

Aspects of information literacy appear in many of the curriculum documents, but not in a comprehensive or even meaningful way. The documents often require students to "carry out research" into given topics, but teachers are not provided with any guidance as to what the research projects should look like, or what skills should be covered at a specific grade level. At what grade level should students start producing bibliographies? When should students be introduced to databases and will the schools have access to a wide range of electronic resources to support this learning? What computer competencies should we expect our students to have at any given grade level? The curriculum documents do not provide answers to these questions, making it difficult for teachers to develop consistent programming.

In an effort to help address this shortcoming of Ontario curriculum documents, the Ontario School Library Association commissioned a parallel curriculum document outlining a program for information literacy (1999). This unofficial curriculum guide divides information literacy into three key areas: information and society, information technology, and inquiry and research. Each of the sections provides detailed coverage of concepts and skills for each grade level from kindergarten through grade twelve.

While the OLA document is laudable for trying to fill a hole in the public school curriculum, the ideas in it have not been put into practice widely. Under financial restraints, school boards are always looking for ways to get by with fewer resources and less staff. In Ontario, there has been an ongoing erosion of the number of specialist teachers in schools. Regular classroom teachers are therefore being asked to deliver specialist programs not just in the core subjects: language, math, social studies, and science; but in many areas that were once covered by specialist teachers: physical education, visual art, and music. As mentioned above, the number of schools with open library programs has also decreased. Given that teachers already feel overburdened with the scope and number of official curriculum points to cover, it is little wonder that this unofficial document which seems to add to the complexities has not been adopted generally.

The Partnering Process:

Some schools have been able to overcome many of the obstacles mentioned above, and have established integrated information literacy programs. I was able to initiate integrated programs at the two different school libraries that I ran, though, in truth, I feel there were limits to the success. I was able to devote only about a quarter of my daily schedule to aspects of information literacy, and the challenges I faced in that small amount of time outstripped the challenges in the entire rest of my day. Chief among them were the difficulties of interacting with other staff members and collaborating with them.

An integrated information literacy program requires subject teachers and librarians to work together on program design and execution. Each set of lessons should be designed for the specific class at hand and the specific topic of study. There is no one correct and complete program that can be applied across the board for all situations. Many lessons can be reused and modified over time, but they all have to be tailored to fit the particular situation. This requires that teachers and librarians spend time meeting and planning together for the program to be successful. Finding common meeting time in the hectic schedules of individual staff members can be tough work. A great many of the "meetings" I held were actually nothing more than chance encounters in the hallways that we seized upon at the moment.

Time restraints can make it difficult to work collaboratively with other staff, but so too can personal and ideological differences. A fully integrated program should require that a large percentage of the school's staff participate in information literacy lessons and activities throughout the school year. Since the work of establishing and running the integrated program typically falls to the librarian, it is usually his or her duty to persuade the staff to come on-board and participate in the lessons. One librarian has to be able to convince some twenty to thirty diverse and divergently thinking teachers to all embrace the one same program or at least approach to programming. Many of these teachers may have little or no understanding of information literacy themselves. Some of the teachers may be contently set in their ways, and resistant to change. Add the challenges of negotiation and statesmanship to the list of difficulties faced by school librarians.

The Situation in Academic Libraries

The challenges of in integrated program listed above may be based on my experiences in the public school setting, but they appear to be similar to the challenges faced in academic institutions as well. As much as there are similarities, however, there are differences too between the two types of educational settings. This section will examine some of these similarities and differences based on the findings of researchers at the academic level. I present the ideas in a structure parallel to the previous section.

Financial restraints:

The financial aspects of an information literacy program are not so pronounced at the academic level as they are at the public school level. The funding for public school comes entirely out of the government's coffers, and individual schools or school boards have no real way of changing the amount of funding they receive even if they wish to implement special programs. Universities in Canada receive only part of their funding from the government, and have a degree of flexibility in the tuition and ancillary fees they charge their students. If universities choose to implement a slightly more expensive teaching model, they have the potential to fund it.

Unlike public schools, academic institutions use data on their library – holdings, services, resources, etc. – as a selling point for the university. Both The Globe and Mail and MacLean's, the Canadian media that rate universities, include evaluations of the library for each institution that they cover. It is often in the best interest of the universities to offer strong library programs as part of their attraction to prospective students. Public schools, on the other hand, have no such incentive since they merely serve their local patrons and are not in competition with each other for students.

Despite the fact that academic libraries spend significantly more money on their libraries than school boards do, funds are by no means unlimited. An integrated information literacy program would require the institution to invest money not just on resources, but to increase library staff as well. The program would require the librarians to spend a significant amount of their time working with the students to enhance learning, yet the librarians' current duties still need to be covered. Financing the programs then, should be seen as feasible at the academic level, even if it would require some realignment of funding.

Staff training:

Unlike teacher-librarians in public schools, academic librarians typically will have earned a Masters of Library Studies degree or comparable. As such, they are more likely to have had a significant amount more exposure to the key concepts of information literacy than their public school counterparts. Academic librarians should also typically have a broader knowledge of resources and materials available to their students since so much more is available at university libraries with their much greater budgets.

While academic librarians have certain advantages over public school librarians as leaders in information literacy, they have one significant disadvantage, the lack of the education degree shared commonly by schoolteachers and teacher-librarians. An integrated information literacy program requires that librarians work on curriculum design with course instructors, teach concepts to the classes, and evaluate student performance. These skills are all part of a teacher's everyday life, but not necessarily a component of a librarian's training.

The lack of training as educators often means that university faculty undervalue the teaching aspect of the librarians' role. At times, this may be merely prejudice, but quite often the librarians' lack of formal training limits their ability to put together effective curricula for library programs (Lampert, 2007, p. 95). To make matters worse, there is a dearth of curriculum support documents for teaching information literacy that might otherwise aid instructional librarians (Liles, 2007, p. 114). Perhaps the situation will improve as more academic libraries embrace the notion of teaching information literacy, but for the time being there exists a divide between the librarian's expertise and the teacher's that is not broached frequently enough.

Curriculum disincentive:

The public school curriculum is set by the provincial government, and applies to all schools in the jurisdiction equally. Such is not the case for universities, which have much more flexibility and autonomy in their programming. Universities, however, can face the problem of offering too broad a curriculum, of having too many schools under one roof, and of having too many students enrolled in the programs to offer a fully integrated library program. Large institutions such as the University of Toronto would find an integrated program much too unwieldy to even undertake.

Smaller academic institutions, undergraduate liberal arts colleges, for example, may have a better chance of establishing an integrated program given the narrower focus of their programming, and smaller number of students they service, but even they face problems. As Van Cleave points out, university departments face an ever growing number of graduation requirements that they must pass on to their students. The issues of information literacy are just one of several "extra-curricular" skills that have been added to programs along with writing, and critical thinking skills (2007, p. 179).

Despite these challenges, there are perhaps more incentives at the university level than disincentives. As students progress through their academic careers, the demands for depth of thought, critical thinking skills, and originality of work all grow. Such requirements are limited at the elementary level, but develop through high school and undergraduate studies, until they become the focus of advanced graduate school programs. Information literacy skills and critical thinking skills are frequently considered mutual. When students are information literate, they produce more thoughtful papers informed by the nuances of differing points of view and biases. Students of integrated information literacy programs also tend to have a stronger sense of their ability to research, and have improved self-esteem (Harley, 2001, p. 305). Information literacy skills, furthermore, are not subject specific so can be applied to almost any discipline allowing the students to better understand and work within whatever curriculum is offered.

Information literacy skills also do not necessarily need to be seen as an addition to the program giving professors more to teach. When integrated into the curriculum effectively, the information literacy skills become a component of the program, the method through which the curriculum is obtained (Bruce & Candy, 2000, p. 7). If instructors see the skills as separate and distinct from the curriculum they are teaching, they probably have not been made aware of the potential of this form of instruction. In all likelihood, they are relying on a style of education that promotes the mere regurgitation of facts decried by many in the educational field today. The role of academic institutions though, really is to turn out critical thinkers, not just those whose brains store a given body of facts. What may seem like "facts" today, may well become the ridiculous concepts of yesterday's ignorance. The critical thinking skills derived through information literacy better allow students to progress with the times, and keep up-to-date as knowledge advances. Most institutions recognise that they aren't just teaching for today, but building a future. The life-long thinking skills developed through information literacy should be a core component of any study.

The Partnering Process:

The challenges in partnering that I faced in my public school setting are every bit as pressing at the academic level. Finding time for faculty and librarians to meet and plan lessons together can be just as difficult at universities as it is in public schools. In fact, of all the problems in integrating information literacy, time is frequently cited as the biggest obstacle of all (Mullins, 2007, p. 233). The reality, though, is that university professors spend significantly less time in front of their classes than do public school teachers who often are responsible for their students for five to six hours every day. Academic instructors may have a great many other duties and responsibilities, but these do not necessarily tie up their days with the supervision of students. They, therefore, have more flexibility for scheduling meetings.

As in public schools, the division between the librarians' and professors' realms of knowledge remains great. Too often professors are so busy keeping up with their subject material alone that they don't have the time to become engaged in the pedagogy of information literacy, or the changes in the information systems that provide access to resources (Nimon, 2001, p. 51). Another concern is with the level of awareness professors have of their students' abilities in information literacy. To some, there is a mistaken feeling that students should simply be able to develop the skills on their awn without support (Julien & Boon, 2002, p. 146). To others, the problem lies with a misunderstanding of the students' abilities:

[Faculty] assume that because students know how to access information that is both free and electronically available, they also have the ability to find, select, organize, and use relevant information sources. Laziness – and not just a lack of critical thinking skills – is what they tend to blame when students fail to meet their performance expectations in both research and writing (Macklin, 2001, p. 306).

As long as understanding is compartmentalised, and subject specialisation exist, there will be difficulties for integrating information literacy.

Measures of Success and the Role of Administrative Support

Given the number and complexity of problems surrounding integrated information literacy, it is surprising that there have been any successful programs at any library. Nevertheless, integration remains the goal for many librarians, and some of them have found ways to overcome the obstacles they face. As I mentioned at the outset of this paper, I was able to establish successful albeit limited partnering programs in two different schools, and several universities are renowned for their programs. Clearly then, it is possible to establish programs that work.

For librarians trying to build integrated programs, one of the most important paths to success is in obtaining administrative support for their work. Certainly that is the situation I found in my public schools. At both of my schools, I needed to meet with my principal, articulate my vision of an information literacy program, expound the benefits, and explain the logistics of the programming before I could put any of it into place. The principals approved my teaching schedule, and occasionally allowed time for meetings. The principals approved the budget, and allocated the funds for resources. Most importantly, the principals were the ones who explained to the rest of the staff what we hoped to accomplish through the program, and gave the mandate that each class would participate at some point through the school year. Many of the librarians I met from other schools in my area were not so fortunate in their efforts to establish partnering programs, and in every case they blamed the failure on lack of administrative support.

From my perspective, administrative support was the crucial element in bringing the rest of the staff on side with the program. School librarians hold central position in public schools. They tend to be the curriculum experts, the resource experts, and an aid to all the staff around them. Despite these advantages, they usually do not have authority over other staff members. Teacher-librarians are simply teaching staff just like the rest, and good intentions or not, they have no power to tell other teachers how they should be delivering the curriculum. Every educational institution has instructors who are stuck in their ways and resistant to change. These teachers are unlikely to participate in new programs on their own impetus. A properly integrated program, however, should reach all students in the school, so the only recourse for the librarian is to turn to the administration for support and to establish the parameters in which all staff will be expected to work.

My experiences at the public school level are mirrored in the academic setting, and several researchers have come to similar conclusions on the importance of administrative support as I have (Bundy, 2003, p. 398; Julien & Boon, 2002, p. 146; Nimon, 2001, p. 44). In a well-constructed paper on integrating information literacy, McGuinness (2007) outlines just how much time and effort librarians waste when they have to spend their days drumming up partnerships by approaching instructors individually. McGuinness finds that this ad hoc instructional method, still used at most academic institutions, provides no equity of instruction since the librarians' time and resources can end up consumed by a few eager professors, "academic-champions" as she calls them, who dominate the programming and leave no room for those less sure-footed in this area (p. 30). She concludes that the only way to establish a truly sustainable integrated information literacy program is to change the prevailing culture of the institution, and that such a change can only come from the top down (p. 34).

McGuinness concludes her paper with a description of the well-known integrated program at Earlham College, Indiana. The information literacy program there is renowned for reaching almost all students at the school, and has now been in effect for over forty years (p. 34). Indeed, Earlham's programming has been inspirational to others who write on the topic (Walker, 2007, p. 63; Van Cleave, 2007, p. 177). In the years since Earlham's early success other academic institutions have developed their own integrated programs. Ellis and Whatley (2006) provide an overview of the recent campus-wide efforts to integrate information literacy in the United States. Their study discussed six specific programs spread across the country. In all cases, the reform in program had not come about solely as a result of librarian intervention, but because of an institution-wide shift in focus. The shift might happen as a result of new programming such as the undergraduate research program at the University of California – Berkley, or a re-alignment of expectations as at the University of Connecticut where information literacy has been added as a key competency for graduates (Ellis & Whatley, 2006, pp. 15-16). Whatever the cause of change, it happened school-wide, and administrative support was the key factor for success.

Without support from the top down, integrated information literacy programs will face too many challenges to be successful. Regardless of the level of instruction – from public schools through to universities – librarians must learn to bring the administration on-board if they want to teach the important skills of information literacy to their patrons effectively.


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