“Flipped” Library Instruction

In keeping with the theme of the “flipped” classroom in first-year writing, Pete and I decided that we would also attempt to flip the library instruction that tends to be a standard part of our ENG105 classes and FYW in general (In fact, in the “Learning the Ropes” article that Pete wrote about, researchers found that “Freshman said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research” (3)).  To accomplish this, Pete created a helpful series of videos to guide students through the library research processes and databases that are typically covered during a librarian’s classroom visit.  The students came to class with a basic understanding of how to approach the research assignment at hand, leaving class time free to spend answering questions and doing some hands-on research with the assistance of our reference librarians.

Hopefully the students learned as much as Pete and I did.  We thought we’d share some of our thoughts about the experience:

  • In the Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti article that Pete details in his last blog post, there is a lot of concern with the “flat” landscape of Google.  Respondents (librarians) to the authors’ survey describe their issues with students’ research tactics:  “They [students] seem to see information as flat, as coming all from one place, Google” and “How to read a citation and understand what type of publication it represents–journal article, book, etc…  Many are used to getting all information from one flat source–Google.”  While I understand what the respondents are trying to get at with the word “flat” (there is more to the research beyond Google and much of the diversity in sources needs to be sought out in other ways, and, as Pete describes below, sources all seem the same to students), I also find the word a bit misleading.  What struck me in working with my students while they were researching this week is that the types of sources available via a Google search are more complex and diverse than ever before.  Part of the assignment [Citation Trail library worksheet] that the students were working with asked them to identify citations and source types, and yes, as the previous respondent describes, students struggled with this, but to be honest:  So did I.  One student discovered a massive online project about digital literacy that isn’t quite a blog but certainly isn’t a static webpage as it regularly publishes articles by scholars researching the topic of teens and digital literacy.  So what is it?  What kind of articles are these pieces that aren’t necessarily peer reviewed or appearing in print publications but involved in scholarly research by experts in a field?
  • The other aspect of the flipped library instruction time that proved challenging was getting students to move away from Google and into the library databases.  This difficulty is described in both the “Learning the Ropes” article and in “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction.”  Because the assignment asks students to track down sources contained in both scholarly and popular sources, there is good reason for many of the students to start with Google search to help track down a source from a reading that doesn’t have a bibliography (for example, as Pete details here in his video about “tips on running down elusive documents”).  Students did well with using Google to find the details of the specific reference; however, getting them to then take that information and use it to find the book or article in our own library’s holdings was a bit of a struggle (it often involved me hovering and directing them to open additional tabs and pull up the catalog or databases).

— From Pete

Two things resonated with me as I walked around and helped students make sense of the documents they had brought up on their screens.

  1. Many did in fact seem to have difficulty understanding format types and purposes outside of the context of their computer screen. The landscape had indeed become flat and within that one dimension, all content was in an important sense equal.
  2. Last year Bryan Alexander, educator and futurist, delivered a keynote speech at a conference I attended. What I most remember about his speech was that he contended that we had moved from being a “culture of the page” to a “culture of the screen.”  One implication of this shift is that a new generation, largely unfamiliar with the print counterparts of online journals, ebooks, etc., have a hard time making critical distinctions between the types of resources that show up on their computer screens.

An inability to determine the context of the resource hampered their ability for critical evaluation.  The Hofer article referenced in an earlier post contends that a key understanding that many students have trouble grasping is, in her shorthand, “format as a process.”  By this she means:

What makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article has nothing to do with how one accesses it (print/digital), but with the process that went into creating it. Understanding this principle helps students navigate the information they find online and evaluate it according to the process underlying its creation, rather than by a set of memorized, constantly changing, inconsistent characteristics.

This lack of understanding was evident as I spoke to many students and did indeed appear to be one of the outcomes of a “flat environment.”

  • Our awareness of these challenges of student research influenced both the assignment design, as well as what Pete covered in his video series.  I wanted students to begin making these distinctions and being able to identify types of sources early on in the research process and also for them to be able to see the range of sources that all scholars and writers use when composing a researched text.  Perhaps by next time framing “what makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article” in the terms that Hofer, Towsend, and Brunetti describe as “the process that went into creating it,” students might better understand the concept of “format as a process.”  This, after all, needs to be a goal of ours according to Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti.  Citing “format as a process” as a “threshold concept” means that “the next step from a pedagogical standpoint is to make curricular changes that surface the teaching and learning of these concepts and then to assess student learning in these areas” (402).
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