Information Literacy Online

Numerous studies, including large-scale studies conducted by Project Information Literacy, The Citation Project, and ERIAL, have shown that students often struggle with research assignments–whether it’s deciding on a suitable topic, assessing the credibility of a source, or understanding the content of a scholarly article. Surveys of our own UofL faculty conducted by Ekstrom Library’s Information Literacy and Research Instruction Program likewise indicate that students need more assistance with research. In particular, faculty tell us they would like to see their students thinking more critically throughout the various stages of the research process and evaluating the quality of their sources more effectively .

While the Ekstrom instruction program teaches thousands of students each year during face-to-face sessions at the library, we are dedicated to expanding the scope of the program to reach even more students and faculty. To this end, we have turned to online instruction as a viable option for reaching new audiences. One of the most common reasons faculty give us for not bringing their students in for library instruction is that they simply can’t allocate the time on syllabi overcrowded with content. Additionally, some faculty teach very large classes, making it difficult to find adequate space for hands-on research instruction with computers. Online instruction can help solve these problems of time and scale, offering more flexible options.

What does information literacy and research instruction look like in the online realm? Although we have been creating course-specific online guides for many years (often as a supplement to face-to-face instruction), we are now working to develop interactive learning modules that can be embedded into Blackboard course shells. Due to the efforts of librarians Sue Finley, Samantha McClellan, and Toccara Porter, we have already reached more than 1,000 students this past year through information literacy content in Blackboard. Our modules are designed to help students learn to use library resources and evaluate information from a critical perspective. We often incorporate multimedia content, such as film clips and interactive diagrams, to illustrate key concepts. And we can also include short activities that reinforce the material, linking them to the Blackboard Score Center for grading by the instructor (or automatic grading).

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In order to take these initiatives to the next level, we have formed an Online Learning Team within the instruction program. Under the leadership of Toccara Porter in her new role as Online Teaching and Outreach Librarian, this team is working to improve instructional offerings for distance students and other online learners. Along with Toccara, members of the team include Kelly Buckman, Sue Finley, Samantha McClellan, and Barbara Whitener. The long-term goal of the Online Learning Team is to build the instruction program’s capacity to collaborate with faculty across disciplines to embed customized online information literacy content into their courses.

If you’re interested in learning more about integrating online information literacy instruction into a class at UofL, please contact us! We will work with you to tailor the content to specific learning objectives and class assignments. And stay tuned for our new website in early 2015!


The LION in Summer

If you logged into the Literature Online (LION) database this summer, you might have noticed its sleek new design. Although the depth of LION’s content—journal articles, author biographies, various reference works, full-text poetry and prose—has always made it one of the best databases for literary research, the previous interface was a bit clunky and difficult to use. Unsurprisingly, we tend to avoid databases with cluttered screen layouts and incoherent search results, despite the quality of the content. We rightly expect more from our technology.

Given that the old LION was no spring chicken, it was clearly time for an update. And I’m happy to report that the new version represents a marked improvement over the previous iteration, especially in regard to the initial search screen. It’s much easier to determine the different types of content included in the database, and the menu options facilitate searching and browsing in a more intuitive manner. If you search all the content at once using the main search box, the results remain a little challenging to parse. However, the overall look is cleaner, so you should be able to find what you’re looking for after a few seconds of scanning.

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It’s worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with LION because it’s an ideal starting point for literary research across all genres and periods, particularly for undergraduate researchers. If you need background information, you’ll find numerous short critical biographies of notable authors, as well as cross-searchable full-text reference titles such as The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms and The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Even more significantly, you can cross-search the MLA International Bibliography and the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature (ABELL), making LION a one-stop shop of sorts for literary criticism. Finally, you can locate actual full-text literary works (over 350,000) and unique audio and video recordings. For instance, I found a very cool video of Nikki Giovanni reading “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes.

To learn more about LION and other online resources for literary research, including Project MUSE and The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, check out our Literature Research Guide.


Critical Thinking and Academic Research

As a teaching and reference librarian, I spend a good portion of my time helping students with research assignments. While I frequently assist the students in my library sessions with pragmatic concerns such as figuring out the best database to use or the most appropriate search terms to enter, I also encourage them to reflect on the research process itself and what they might bring to that process as creative critical thinkers.

We’ll often discuss various ways of defining “research,” ranging from more practical and concrete definitions (collecting information on a topic, finding evidence to support an argument, etc.) to those that are more abstract and conceptual (creating new knowledge, participating actively in an ongoing scholarly “conversation,” etc.). During such discussions, I ultimately try to stress critical inquiry—a process of asking thoughtful questions about the world and exploring potential answers—as the driving force of academic research.

Good researchers in all disciplines pose questions that genuinely interest them (and hopefully others as well) and then attempt to answer their questions through data collection and analysis of some sort. Research is not simply about compiling, organizing, and presenting information; rather, it involves the use of information to make interpretations, critique assumptions, draw conclusions, and so on. The researcher is not a passive spectator of preexisting information but an active participant in an evolving process, engaging in the intellectual practices we associate with critical thinking. This is the kind of mindset that I hope the students I work with will adopt as they conduct research.

Librarians who teach in our Information Literacy Program work to foster critical thinking in research through class discussions and active learning exercises. Where possible, we emphasize the importance of thinking critically about individual sources and the larger information landscape, as opposed to the need to master any one search engine, database, or catalog. Even when teaching basic search skills, we try to do so in the context of critical thinking.

We have also developed an online guide that explains aspects of the academic research process through the lens of the Paul-Elder framework for critical thinking. This framework is a major component of UofL’s Ideas to Action (i2a) quality enhancement plan for improving undergraduate learning. We hope this guide will help students approach their research with a more critical mindset, as well as help teaching faculty consider possible ways of using the Paul-Elder framework to contextualize research assignments in their classes.


Lit Reviews: Have you found everything?

Conducting a comprehensive literature review for a dissertation, thesis, or large-scale research project can be an arduous and overwhelming task. At the library, we receive a number of common questions about this process:

What databases should I search?  Have I located all the influential studies relevant to my topic? What about the less-influential studies? Is it possible I’m missing an obscure article from an unknown journal that will completely alter the course of my research?

In other words, have I found everything?

While literature searches inevitably involve a certain amount of, well, uncertainty, we’ve put together a new research guide  to help you strategize, organize, and, perhaps most importantly, stay in the good graces of a perpetually grumpy dissertation director.

Our guide suggests key library resources (as well as Google Scholar, which can be especially useful for interdisciplinary research), offers helpful search tips (do you know how to tell who has been citing your favorite article?), and lists some options for managing the search process (EndNote! EndNote! EndNote!). All of this stuff can make your life easier and your research more enjoyable and productive. Seriously.

But what about that lingering question: have you found absolutely everything of relevance? Given that new potential sources are being published by the minute (or faster) in a rapidly expanding information universe, it’s always possible to miss something. However, you can alleviate your anxiety by considering the following questions:

  • Have I searched all the major databases relevant to my area of interest?
  • Am I seeing the same authors/sources over and over again?
  • Have I checked through the bibliographies/references of the sources I’ve found?
  • Am I keeping track of new publications through database/journal alerts and regular communication with other researchers?
  • Have I talked to a librarian?

It might seem a little self-serving (sorry!), but that last questions is especially important. Librarians at UofL are more than happy to meet with researchers in any discipline to discuss resources and strategies. It’s not just our job—we love research! You can request an appointment with a librarian on at Ask a Librarian. Good luck with the search!


Fictional Excerpts from Government Documents #2

The following is NOT an excerpt from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s report on “State-of-the-Art Dummy Selection” (1984):

“The first rule of thumb is to find a dummy that isn’t evil or likely to become evil. This phenomenon has been documented by government officials numerous times, with Willie and Talky Tina being worst-case scenarios from the 1960s. How do you know if the dummy you’ve selected has a proclivity for malevolent behavior? First, be wary of unlicensed suppliers. If a mysterious person in a foggy street sold you the dummy, then cackled when you walked away, that’s a red flag. Second, if the dummy talks to you in a snide, menacing voice (often accompanied by grinning or winking), you may want to reconsider working with the dummy on a long-term basis, especially if the voice sounds even remotely like an angry Brad Dourif. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends using only non-evil Grade A or B dummies for crash tests. Grade C or D dummies are not recommended, even if you kind of like that dude’s impossibly deep voice.”

Want to read the real thing? This government document and thousands more are available from University Libraries.


Fictional Excerpts from Government Documents #1

The following is NOT an excerpt from the Congressional hearing Review of the State Department’s Silverware Replacement Program (1987):

“After an audible but unidentified snicker from the panel, Secretary of State Shultz once again blamed Alexander Haig for the failed policy that led to the so-called Cutlery Crisis of 1986. However, with tears in his eyes, Shultz took full responsibility for the introduction of plastic sporks during the infamous 1987 State Department Pit Barbecue and Sack Race Luncheon, where Walter Mondale was so offended by the quality of the eating utensils that he dropped out of the competition. Shultz asked Congress to provide funding for replacement silverware, proposing that it be paid for through the sale of ‘Diplo-Mats,’ a limited series of government-produced placemats featuring images of Henry Kissinger sunbathing in exotic locations.”

Want to read the real thing? This government document and thousands more are available from University Libraries.