Information Literacy, Big6 and University Education

Author: Carmel McNaught

Editor’s Note: This essay provides compelling evidence of the importance of developing information skills early – Carmel’s work has shown that sound information skills can help students succeed through their college years. This article is based on a chapter in an upcoming book — McNaught, C. (in press). The synergy between information literacy and eLearning. In H. S. Ching, P. W. T. Poon & C. McNaught (Eds.). eLearning and Digital Publishing. London: Springer.

CLEAR (Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research)is a small education development unit offering a range of teaching and learning services across the Chinese University of Hong Kong. One factor that distinguishes CLEAR from similar units is that CLEAR was founded with the requirement that its work should be evidence-based and thus enable educational principles to be clearly related to the context of a bilingual, bicultural Chinese university. Evaluation research is thus an integral part of CLEAR’s role.

Planning good university programs
There is almost a mantra these days about the increasing rate of change in all college and university institutions. What is remaining the same? What is changing? Dealing with change in a piecemeal fashion is rarely a good idea. The changing educational world of the 21st century demands very careful planning because we are trying to prepare our graduates for an unknown world.

University education rests on the premise that student learning can be facilitated by operating in a planned environment. This means that the curriculum needs to be planned in a coherent fashion so that the nature of the total student experience over, usually, a period of years fits together. This is what is often called curriculum alignment (Biggs, 1999).

Many university programs are designed by choosing an appropriate set of content topics, but insufficient attention is paid to other details of educational design. However, there are several aspects to good curriculum planning. The aims need to be clearly spelled out; this is often best done by specifying reasonably precise learning outcomes or objectives. Choosing content topics for programs (and their component courses), planning teaching and learning activities, and setting assessment tasks for the students need to be done together, and all these three aspects of planning need to be done with the learning outcomes in mind.

What is learning?
It is worthwhile spending a little time looking at the meaning of learning. Learning is a complex process. How do students learn the important ideas they need to know? Do they assimilate information which they then reproduce? This might be possible for certain facts, but even then, if the facts are all unrelated, it is hard to remember them.

Learning is much easier if connections can be made between ideas and facts. How can these connections be made? Is it by rules, as in a system of information processing, much like the way a computer can be programmed? This might be possible for learning fixed processes which are always the same, for example, a laboratory procedure such as setting up an electrical circuit from a diagram, or routine clinical procedures such as taking a patient’s blood pressure. But sets of rules are not enough when learners need to solve a problem they have not seen before, or when they want to design something quite new (a bridge, a poem, or a plan for doing new research). Something else is needed then. In these cases, learning appears to be a complex process where knowledge is constructed from a variety of sources. What students learn depends on what they already know, how they engage with new ideas, and the processes of discussion and interaction with those they talk to about these ideas.

This description of learning should sound familiar to those already using the Big6 Information Problem Solving Process. The Big6 gives individuals a roadmap for gleaning information from a variety of sources, using them to create original products or to spark new learning, and then presenting or using those results in a meaningful way. In other words, the learning strategies that I have observed in my most successful students are those students who learn through applying the Big6 Skills strategy.

Graduate capabilities and information literacy
The outcomes of education, especially if we take a lifelong view of learning, are more likely to be described by broad capabilities, such as the list of clusters of abilities noted by Nightingale, Te Wiata, Toohey, Ryan, Hughes and Magin (1996):

  • thinking critically and making judgments;
  • solving problems and developing plans;
  • performing procedures and demonstrating techniques;
  • managing and developing oneself;
  • accessing and managing information;
  • demonstrating knowledge and understanding;
  • designing, creating, performing; and
  • communicating.

In a globally connected world where challenges are inter-disciplinary, these capabilities become more essential.

Information literacy is integral to the development of many of the capabilities above.
If we combine several of these capabilities, we come up with something close to a useful working definition of information literacy:
Information literacy involves accessing, evaluating, managing and communicating information.

Information and knowledge
The difference between information and knowledge is often not clearly defined, and indeed there is often a strong overlap in normal conversation. The analogy of the difference between the bricks and mortar, and the house can be useful. Information is the bricks, and learning skills and processes constitute the mortar. Combining ‘bricks’ of information together using appropriate strategies (mortar) can result in a new house of knowledge. Knowledge is constructed from information. Thus, an information-literate person is someone who can find and select the right information for any given task. In this sense, information literacy is a pre-requisite for learning in any independent and active fashion. It is clear how the steps advocated in the Big6 process fit the needs of all learners.

CUHK University Library in an eWorld
Here at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) our University Library has a key role in assisting the embedding of information literacy into the curriculum. The University Library System (ULS) has made strong efforts since its foundation in the 1960s to fulfill this role. In the last five years, these efforts have been intensified owing to the rapid and burgeoning availability of a huge variety of electronic resources.

In many cases these eResources have very few things in common with each other in terms of standardization of storage, metadata and display, search keys, copyright restrictions and so on. Thus, as the diversity of resources increases, so too do the challenges for the Library staff. The Library staff may be challenged but many teachers and students are really quite bewildered by this new eWorld! And remember we have Chinese as well as English databases and eResources to manage. In this highly complex information environment, information literacy strategies like the Big6 become an essential component of student success.

Supporting our graduate students
Let us, for example, focus on how we support our graduate students in developing information literacy skills. Many of these students come to us from a variety of universities in mainland China and so there is variation in the information literacy support they will have received. Our librarians are involved in various courses and workshops which include:

  • A three-hour long subject-specific programme, Locating Information@Library for graduate students new to the University;
  • An Internet and Research workshop; and,
  • A mandatory course for every postgraduate student, Observing Intellectual Property and Copyright Law during Research (a fully online course).

In addition, orientation sessions are always conducted for new teaching staff in early September of every year.

In conclusion, let me return briefly to the concept of graduate capabilities that I postulated as being central to the planning of effective universities programs in the 21st century. The achievement of a population of graduates who have the capacity to evaluate complex, often ill-defined, issues and options with an analytical and open-minded approach is becoming increasingly urgent. Embedding information literacy in university programs is essential; furthermore, students who learn Big6 in the K-12 classroom stand to gain a significant advantage when they enter the complex information world of the University.

Biggs, J. (1999). What the student does: Teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18(1), 57–75.