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August 30, 2007

ULS sessions focus on info literacy

At one time, library research consisted of searching through a limited few choices: newspapers, magazines and reference books.

That’s no longer the case, with e-books, podcasts and blogs joining a growing list of online choices for today’s information seekers.

As the choices grow, the need to navigate effectively becomes increasingly critical, especially in academic research.

Among the University’s stated goals for students is that they be able to gather and evaluate information effectively and appropriately.

The skill set known as “information literacy” includes knowing how to decide when information is needed, what kind is needed and where to look. According to University Library System (ULS ) coordinator of library instruction Marian Hampton, it also includes the ability to evaluate sources for the information that is needed and to use the material ethically in light of plagiarism and copyright issues.

ULS is taking the lead in helping professors help their students achieve that outcome. The first of four meetings to present information to faculty members on the ULS information literacy initiative will take place tomorrow, Aug. 31.

“The Internet changed everything,” said Hampton, adding that students need to become savvy users of information.

Professors may see students engrossed in their iPods and laptops and other technology and assume that because students can navigate, they are able to gather information effectively from a database. That’s not necessarily the case, said Hampton. Simply understanding the type of information to look for can be a challenge, let alone actually finding it.

“Sometimes faculty members forget how challenging it can be to kids. It’s hard to remember being a novice,” she said.

She notes that it’s often difficult to convince students of the value of using library databases to find reliable sources when they’re accustomed to conducting web searches; in addition, students may not approach sources with the proper amount of skepticism, she said.

The information literacy skills of incoming Pitt students have been tested in recent years using an online assessment called SAILS. The tool, developed at Kent State, allows results to be compared school-by-school within the University or in comparison with a larger group of students at other universities. The testing also can pinpoint certain areas where a particular group of students might be lacking skills. Knowing where students need help can be used to adjust the curriculum.

“We’re finding Pitt students are kind of average in terms of their skill levels,” Hampton said. SAILS testing can be arranged school-by-school or in individual classes by request, she said. While the benchmarks are being collected through freshman programs, Hampton is anxious to see testing done later in students’ academic careers to assess the change in their abilities. For instance, freshmen taking the orientation class, “Introduction to the Arts and Sciences,” are being tested during their first week and will be tested again later in the term. “It will be interesting to see if there are any large variations in scores,” she said.

Another way ULS is improving information literacy skills is the development of online tutorials on topics such as using databases, avoiding plagiarism, searching with keywords, evaluating web information and identifying scholarly literature. Faculty can access the interactive tutorials by using the faculty express button on the ULS web site, then clicking into the “information literacy program” section.

The tutorials, which contain a brief quiz at the end, may be used in or outside of class, Hampton said, adding that if a professor registers with ULS, he or she can receive students’ results, allowing the use of the tutorial as a graded assignment.

Hampton said faculty should talk to their librarians about additional ways of tailoring information literacy skill instruction, noting that the concepts are more meaningful when couched within the context of what the students are learning. She said she is willing to work with schools, departments or even individual faculty.

Information literacy is not a new concept. “I believe every instructor in some way talks about this to his or her students,” Hampton said. In addition, the development of the skill set goes beyond the classroom. “These skills work across all parts of our lives,” she said. In later life, students may use the skills to research a prospective employer, a neighborhood they may wish to move into, or even health issues. “Our goal is to understand what our students know and to improve their education by teaching toward the skills they need,” Hampton said.

Faculty meetings outlining the information literacy initiatives are being scheduled on all Pitt campuses. Dates have not been set for the Titusville, Johnstown and Bradford campuses. A session was scheduled last week in Greensburg.

In Pittsburgh, lunch meetings are set for noon tomorrow and Sept. 12. (Registration is required by emailing ULS also has set meetings at 11 a.m. Oct. 2 and 3 p.m. Oct. 24. All will be held in 272 Hillman Library.

Additional sessions will be scheduled, Hampton said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 40 Issue 1

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