Creating a successful information literacy program for distance students
With the rapid increase in the number of distance students coupled with the increasing number of traditional students seeking information online, academic librarians are faced with the challenge of teaching information literacy to students who may never walk into the physical library. In order to reach the goal of creating life-long learners, academic librarians must be creative in their initiatives to teach this growing population of students. It is imperative that librarians understand the necessity of teaching distance students, utilize the principles of learning, perform the necessary research, collaborate with faculty, market their products, understand the trends, find their niche, and evaluate their programs if they want to succeed in the endeavor of teaching information literacy to all students.
First, as academic librarians, we must acknowledge that teaching information literacy to distance students is a necessity. The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education states that information literacy competencies for distance students should be comparable to the standards set for on-campus students (ACRL, 2000). Teaching information literacy is our responsibility.
Every year the number of distance learning students grows, increasing the number of students that may never walk into our on-campus libraries. Furthermore, many students, on-campus and distance, often prefer to do their research online and in the comfort of their own home, apartment, or dormitory rather than going into the library. These students want available service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whether these students come into the library or visit it online, they need our help to properly access, evaluate, incorporate, and utilize information effectively. The reality is that many students cannot come into the library due to distance and other responsibilities, and others simply do not want to go into the physical library. Rather than expending all of our energy trying, rather ineffectively, to bring these students into the library, we should bring library services and instruction to the students (Ramsay, 2006).
Whether teaching an information literacy class in person or at a distance, the same principles of learning apply. We must use a variety of methods to reach out to students with different learning styles. There are many learning styles, including reflective, impulsive, abstract, concrete, serialistic, holistic, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Each person can have one or several of these learning styles, and the combinations will vary from student to student. It is wise to evaluate and decipher your own learning style, because the tendency of most teachers is to teach to their own learning style. By being cognizant of our own learning styles, we can make an effort to teach to other learning styles as well (May, 2007).
The latest generation of learners grew up with video games and a great deal of technology. They tend to be kinesthetic learners who are highly visual and prefer to learn in group situations. Because of the multiple devices used by this generation, often simultaneously, these students are great multi-taskers. These generalities should be kept in mind when creating instruction for distance students, but we must also remember that many distance students are not traditional students. Currently, most distance students are females, aged 25-54, carrying a full-time class load coupled with full-time employment and family obligations. While these students definitely qualify as multi-taskers, they may not fit the entire profile of the newest generation of learners. This demographic exhibits a wide array of learning styles that must be considered when teaching information literacy from a distance. Ideas to be considered are including audio files, video files, discussion services, and interactive tutorials in the lessons. A multi-dimensional approach is necessary to serve all students (May, 2007).
Paramount to any successful information literacy education endeavor is doing proper research before the implementation of any program. The most successful distance information literacy programs begin with a great amount of research.
One key area of research is determining who the distance students are at your institution. What are their age groups, gender, and background? What types of courses are they taking? Are they pursuing undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, or continuing education? Are they taking all of their courses at a distance or only a few? Do they have means of getting to the campus library, or must they obtain all of their information online? When do they need information and reference help? How do they currently obtain research? After learning about the distance students, can you make any assumptions about their learning styles? (May, 2007)
How do you acquire this information? Some student information can be obtained through academic records. For more in-depth information, surveys and faculty consultations are necessary. However, surveys are only useful if they are completed. One excellent means of persuading students to complete a survey is to attach some type of award to the process, such as entering the survey participants in a draw for a prize.
Another factor leading to a successful program is knowing and working well with distance education faculty and instructors. It is necessary for librarians to seek out these instructors. What disciplines do they teach, and at what course level? What types of assignments do they give that require library research? How do they feel about librarians teaching information literacy to the students? Do they feel that teaching information literacy is their responsibility, the librarian's, or both? Are they aware of the services that can be provided? What types of resources need to be made available to the students and the instructors to insure academic success? All of this information is crucial in developing successful information literacy training (Huford, 2004).
In addition to researching the students and faculty, the institutional resources must be researched and assessed as well. The idea of institutional resources covers a broad spectrum. First, the current budget available for improving information literacy instruction to distance education students must be determined, as well as money that may be obtained in other ways, such as through reallocating money from different areas of the budget, alumni and community donations, or by requesting additional funds from institution officials. Human resources are another institutional asset to be researched. Who in the institution can contribute to the creation of a distance education information literacy program? Finding other librarians to help develop the program, technical support people to help in the day-to-day operation, and faculty to help support the program are crucial. All of these people can give ideas and feedback to the program. Finally, it is necessary to determine what programs are already in place. Do you already have web tutorials, class web-pages, instant reference, or an embedded librarian? How are these programs working? Can a successful program be obtained by simply tweaking and marketing what you already have, or do you need to eliminate some programs and start over? A great deal of information is obtained by simply reviewing the resources already in place. Regardless of the program currently in place, and especially if no program is in place, researching what programs other institutions have implemented will provide you with an excellent guide to proceed in your endeavor. Research defines the process (Abels, 2007).
After completing the research phase of program development, it is necessary to start sowing the seeds of collaboration. Hopefully, the seeds were planted during the research phase. Creating a successful information literacy program requires librarians, faculty, and administrative support to work in unison (Buck, 2006). The remoteness of the learners does not decrease the importance of collaboration. On the contrary, distance intensifies the need for effective collaboration.
Collaboration is made more difficult in distance education because not only are the students at a distance, often the faculty (distance faculty are often adjuncts) are at a distance as well. One means of helping to bridge the distance gap is by creating a designated library contact. This person is the "go to" for all library questions related to distance education. This person is also responsible for educating adjunct faculty to the services available for distance students (Buck, 2006).
One means of creating a spirit of collaboration is to offer services to the faculty. Offering to create class pages (web pages) is one channel of getting your foot in the door with faculty members. The librarian discusses what content should be included on the class page with the instructor, and encourages the instructor to include library resources appropriate for the class. The librarian should also take this time to ascertain the level of information literacy of the students in the class, and suggest ways that librarians could help to raise this level. Making the instructor aware of services in a non-threatening manner increases the odds of that faculty member eventually utilizing the library's services. Through this process, a collaboration begins that, with nurturing, will evolve into future collaboration. By beginning with small steps, the librarian can work up to more and more involvement with the information literacy training of the students, leading to increased library resources on the class webpage, embedding in the classroom, and having the opportunity to conduct live chats with the students (May, 2007).
Another means of increasing collaboration is through taking part in training. By participating in pedagogical training opportunities, librarians receive more respect from faculty. It is important that the librarians are able to present ideas for information literacy training that are both pedagogically sound and that show an understanding of the issues that instructors deal with. Attending workshops with faculty members also provides another opportunity to get to know members of the faculty and to find potential areas of future collaboration. Any method of developing positive relationships with faculty is worth pursuing (Buck, 2006).
However, collaborating with faculty is not enough. It is necessary to collaborate with all those involved with distance education. This includes school administrators, instructional designers, academic advisors, technology staff, faculty, and others that have a vested interest in the distance program. To create a successful distance information literacy program, the librarian must be able to act as a liaison with all stakeholders. This means that the librarian must be adept at talking technology with technological support and instructional designers, be comfortable discussing pedagogy with faculty, and be capable of discussing budget constraints with administrators, all the while increasing the collaborative atmosphere (Kearly, 2004). The situation may not be ideal, but it is necessary for librarians to act as the "academic geisha", being all things to all people, and able to move in all circles of academia in order to insure student success.
There are many trends currently practiced in the area of distance information literacy training. Below are a few examples of possibilities that could be included in a successful information literacy program for distance students.
The library website is an essential for distance students. Students need to have access to library information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The website must contain important information such as library hours, a toll-free number if one is available, and links to inter-library loan information, tutorials, the library catalog and electronic resources. Clear, easy-to-use links that lead the students to distance services should also be available. Students should not have to search throughout the website to find links to reference services. These services could include, but are certainly not limited to, an online chat service, email reference, online tutorials, guides to evaluating internet resources, and forms to request documents that are not available through the electronic resources (May, 2007). It is important that the website is well-maintained and that the services offered on the site are truly available when the website says they are available.
On the website, some opportunity for reference assistance should be available. A simple means of achieving this is by offering email reference. It is crucial that the person responsible for handling email reference is well-qualified. The library should consider whether it is practical to have the reference librarian on duty handle email requests in addition to in-person requests, or whether it is necessary to have another librarian handle the email reference requests. It is also essential that the second, third, and fourth person down the line know who is responsible for handling email reference should the person scheduled not be able to meet his or her obligations.
Another important component is letting students know how long it will take for them to receive answers to their requests. Most students do not need an answer immediately, but they do need to know when they can expect their answer (May, 2007). When informing these students of the time frame, "soon" is not a realistic answer. "Soon" to the student may mean five minutes ago, while to the librarian it may mean "before I leave today". Students need concrete answers, such as "in an hour" or "before 3 P.M."
Email reference gives the librarian an added opportunity to teach some information literacy skills to the student. The librarian can provide the student with information on the database(s) used, how the search was formed, how the search was expanded or narrowed, why the result was valid (how it was evaluated), and other possible resources to investigate. It also provides an opportunity for the student to ask further questions on locating, retrieving, evaluating, and utilizing information.
Another benefit of email reference is that it gives the student 24 -hour service without having to have a 24-hour librarian. While many students do not require an answer to their reference questions at 3 A.M., they may need to ask the question with the knowledge that they will receive an answer some time the following day (May, 2007). With this knowledge, they can continue their other work.
Instant reference or "chat service" is very popular with the newest generation of college students, especially if they can text the library from their phone. It is also popular with students who need answers to their questions immediately. Instant messaging also provides distance students, who often feel isolated in their academic experiences, with a sense of comfort and encouragement through their research endeavors (Cooke, 2004). This sense of encouragement may open doors for students to ask more questions in the future. It also provides an opportunity for the librarian to lead the student to more information literacy training.
Providing instant reference does have caveats. Difficulties may arise due to insufficient staffing and budget constraints. As with any new service, the library must evaluate whether or not providing instant reference is a practical solution for the institution. One factor to consider in this evaluation is whether or not the library will be able to properly staff the instant reference service. Does the library have enough staff members, and can they afford to pay for the additional hours required to run the service effectively? (May, 2007). If the service cannot be run effectively, then the library should not provide it. Having an instant message service that students cannot rely upon is disappointing for the students and results in negative publicity for the library.
Web tutorials are a great way of providing information literacy training. Web tutorials are a good fit for distance students because they can be accessed at any time and allow students to work at their own pace. Another benefit of the web tutorial is that unlike in-class instruction, the web tutorial can be revisited to reiterate information literacy skills to students. Due to the self-paced nature of the web tutorial, more information literacy skills can be addressed: for instance, skills such as Boolean operators can be looked at in depth, whereas in a classroom setting, there may not be enough time. Students also have the ability to skip ahead in a tutorial if it covers information the student already knows, and allows the student to spend more time in areas of difficulty. This degree of self-pacing is not available during in-class instruction.
Effective web tutorials may also help students realize their true levels of understanding or knowledge. In studies where students were evaluated on their searching skills before and after tutorials, many felt they had excellent searching and evaluating abilities before the tutorials, yet performed dismally in the evaluation. After the tutorial the students' confidence in their abilities was more in sync with their actual searching behavior. More importantly, students exhibited the ability to carry over their knowledge to other areas of study. It was also found that more interactive tutorials had better results, and that distance students performed better than on-campus students (Blakesley-Lindsay, 2006).
Blogs are an innovative means of teaching information literacy. The advantages of blogs are that they are relatively inexpensive and quick to produce. Blogs are also a great means of building community and encouraging collaborative learning. Another great advantage is that since they require a minimal amount of effort and money to produce, they are worth trying even if they fail to gain acceptance (Coulter, 2006).
Stephen F. Austin State University attempted to use a blog to increase the librarians' access to the students. The librarians felt that by using a blog, they would be able to continue to develop information literacy skills in students after their one-shot information literacy training classes. They also felt that the blog would be a great way to get distance students involved. One of their ideas was to have each posting to the blog automatically generate an email to the librarian. This way the librarian knew to check the blog and see if she could provide assistance to the students. The blogs were also linked to appropriate subject guides. One of the library's biggest mistakes, however, was that the librarians failed to promote it properly. Many students, when surveyed about the blog, said they would have enjoyed it had they known it was available. Despite this, the librarians felt that the blog was successful in its purpose and would only need to be better marketed to be successful as an information literacy tool (Coulter, 2006).
Another means of increasing librarians' presence with distance students and improving their information literacy knowledge is to embed in an online classroom. This practice goes by many names, such as the embedded librarian, the lurking librarian, and librarian in the classroom. With this method, a librarian actually becomes a part of the class, often with a library discussion forum within the class. The instructor and librarian determine the role the librarian will play in the classroom before the beginning of class. The students are informed of the librarian's presence and how to access the librarian for assistance. Having a discussion forum designated for the embedded librarian helps to encourage students to post their questions. The openness of the discussion forum allows all students to benefit from each others' questions. The librarian also has the opportunity to post information to further assist the students. Topics might include Boolean searching, evaluating resources, citing sources, avoiding plagiarism, help with specific assignments, etc.
There are many benefits to having an embedded librarian teach information literacy. The embedded librarian encourages further collaboration with faculty. The ongoing nature of the embedded librarian helps students develop a level of comfort with the librarian, and allows information literacy training to be cumulative. Furthermore, a shy or nervous student can benefit from reading other students' questions and answers without having to build the nerve to ask questions on his or her own.
Unfortunately, being an embedded librarian requires a great deal of time. A librarian embedded in several classrooms must expect to spend one or two hours every day following up on student questions, participating in chats, and posting information. It is important that an embedded librarian evaluate how much time he or she has to spend in a classroom and whether or not it will interfere with his or her other librarian duties (May, 2007).
Online Information Literacy Courses
Teaching a required, credit-based, online information literacy course is perhaps the Holy Grail for information literacy-focused librarians. The best way to insure that students receive the necessary education to become information literate, life-long learners is to have a class that all students must successfully complete in order to continue their studies. In a semester or even a "mini-mester", librarians could cover all of the topics that are so often missed with one-shot library instruction classes, such as evaluating sources, evaluating information on the internet, successful searching, transferring skills across the disciplines, citing sources, avoiding plagiarism, and understanding copyright laws.
One of the many advantages experienced by one teacher of an online information literacy course is that by teaching the students the limits of internet search engines, they are encouraged to use "deep web" resources such as electronic databases and other library resources. This class's assignments also require the students to experience realistic information seeking processes where it may not always be easy to find the answer rather than leading the students through canned searches. This training teaches students how to reformulate searches and where to go for help when difficulties arise (Brunvand, 2004).
Teaching online is not the same as teaching in person. In order for online teaching to be successful, instructors must do all of the course planning and developing before the course begins. It is also difficult to accommodate some learning styles with online teaching, making it necessary for instructors to go the extra mile for students struggling with the format of the class. It is also imperative that instructors keep up with communication with the students and provide rapid feedback (Lindsay, 2004).
Besides researching, collaborating, and deciding which trends you will utilize in developing the distance information literacy program, the program and its services must be marketed in order to insure the success of the program. Librarians must market their services at every opportunity. One of the main causes of failure found in evaluations of information literacy programs is that students did not know that resources and services were available (Coulter, 2006).
Many effective marketing techniques exist for information literacy programs. Fliers, bookmarks, and library instruction handouts will help market the online information literacy services, but these only reach students that have an opportunity to come to campus. Librarians must be more creative to reach the distance students. Sending out emails to all distance students and faculty explaining the online resources available and opportunities for information literacy training is one means of reaching distance students. Another marketing tool is having clear links to available services on the library website.
Working with faculty is key to marketing services to students. Through the faculty, links to library services can be placed on class pages, librarians may become embedded in the classroom, and students may even be required to utilize the services. The faculty's attitude towards the library and its services is the predominant factor in the success of marketing the information literacy program. The goal is to transform the faculty into information literacy cheerleaders (Kemp, 2007).
Frances May of the University of North Texas ended her presentation at the 2007 TLA preconference with this quote that speaks to the vast need for marketing: "Be your own brand. Remind everyone you meet who you are, what you do, what you stand for. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself. Most distance education students and faculty do not know what the library has to offer" (May, 2007).
After completing all of the tasks associated with implementing a successful information literacy program for distance students, it is fundamental that the program be constantly evaluated to insure its efficacy. Assessment of the program should continue throughout the life of the program, not just in its infancy. Evaluation should be systematic and incorporate feedback from students and faculty. In addition, changes in technology and other external factors should be monitored to keep the program current (Abels, 2007).
One means of evaluating the program is through a survey. Surveys for students should include questions that allow the students to express specific likes and dislikes within the program. It is exceedingly important to incorporate questions that confirm students' awareness of the services provided. In case of failure, this will inform the librarians as to whether the program needs revamping or just remarketing. It is also important to survey the faculty. Ask the faculty if students are turning in better research assignments, what areas the students are lacking the expected knowledge and skills, and in what ways the library could better facilitate the instruction of information literacy concepts. Other stakeholders in the program, such as technical and administrative support staff, should also be surveyed to determine any issues they are having with the program. Once all of these surveys are gathered, a group with representatives of all the stakeholders should convene to establish which areas of the program need to be improved, upgraded, updated, changed, or discarded. If a program or area of a program is not working, do not be afraid to abandon it. More time and money wasted is not often the best solution. Take the lessons learned and try something new (May, 2007).
Another means of evaluating the program is through student testing. This method works best with web tutorials and information literacy courses. By providing self-tests at the end of each tutorial or section of a tutorial and recording the results, the library staff can look for patterns and determine which areas the web tutorial teaches well and which areas are leaving the students lacking (Blakesley-Lindsay, 2006). In the same way, by evaluating student work in an information literacy course and providing the student with feedback, both the student and the instructor become aware of the areas of information literacy that need addressing. As patterns develop, librarians working as instructors can revamp the course to focus on areas of difficulty. Instructors should also inquire as to whether the students feel they have increased their information literacy skills and whether they are becoming better seekers of information. This interpersonal feedback tells the instructor volumes about the effectiveness of the course material (Lindsay, 2004).
In conclusion, the process of creating a successful information literacy program for distance students is long and complex. A distance program has many issues unique to on-campus programs, yet many of the basic steps are the same. The fundamental steps for creating a program are accepting the necessity of the program, utilizing the principles of learning, doing the research, collaborating with stakeholders, determining what methods work best for the institution's current circumstances, marketing the program, and then doing constant evaluation and maintenance of the program. By adhering to this process, we can insure that we are accomplishing our goals and fulfilling our responsibilities to teaching all students information literacy.
Abels, E., White, M., and Kim, S. (2007). Developing subject-related web sites collaboratively: The Virtual Business Information Center. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(1), 27-40. Retrieved Monday, April 30, 2007 from Library and Information Science Full-Text database.
Blakesley-Lindsay, E., Cummings, L., Johnson, C., and Scales, B. (2006). If you build it will they learn? Assessing online information literacy tutorials. College & Research Libraries, 67(5), 429-45. Retrieved November 15, 2006 from the Library and Information Science Full-Text database.
Brunvand, A. (2004). Integrating library reference services in an online information literacy course: The Internet Navigator as a model. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 9(3/4), 159-177. Retrieved Monday, April 30, 2007 from the Academic Search Premier database.
Buck, S., Islam, R., and Syrkin, D. (2006). Collaboration for distance information literacy instruction: Do current trends reflect best practices? Journal of Library Administration, 45(1/2), 63-79. Retrieved Monday, April 30, 2007 from the Academic Search Premier database.
Cooke, N. (2004). The role of libraries in web-based distance education: An account and an analysis of the impact of web technology on distance learning-what remains unchanged, what is changing. Journal of Library and Information Services in Distance Learning. 1(4), 47-57. Retrieved Tuesday, May 1, 2007 from the Haworth Press database.
Coulter, P. and Draper, L. (2006). Blogging it into them: Weblogs in information literacy instruction. Journal of Library Administration, 45(1/2), 101-115. Retrieved Monday, April 30, 2007 from the Academic Search Premier database.
Huford, J. (2004). Library support for distance learners: What faculty think. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 1(3). Retrieved Tuesday, May 1, 2007 from the Haworth Press database.
"Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education." 2000. Association of College & Research Libraries. [April 20, 2007] http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/informationliteracycompetency.htm
Kearly, J., & Phillips, L. (2004). Embedding library reference services in online courses. Internet Reference Quarterly, 9(1/2), 65-76. Retrieved Tuesday, May 1, 2007 from the Academic Search Premier database.
Kemp, L. (2007, April 11). Serving Academic Distance Populations: Marketing Library Services for Distance Learners. TLA Preconference presented at Texas Library Association 2007 Annual Conference, San Antonio, Texas.
Kelli Michelle Wilder is a current School of Library and Information Science student at the University of North Texas.
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