Teaching to threshold concepts in information literacy

I’ve been reading and re-reading the first draft of ACRL’s revised framework for information literacy (http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/?page_id=133). I’ve got lots of thoughts forming, and I’ll make a point to draw them together. But today, as I read further, I found myself wanting to map the initial three threshold concepts to our existing instructional output in Champlain College. I’m really glad that I did this – I attended the open forum held during ALA Midwinter, and have been reading the reaction to the new framework online. It seems that some are concerned about the terminology. I think it will be key for ACRL and/or our industry to highlight to each other the great work that we’re all currently doing with threshold concepts and metaliteracy. I’m sure I’ll come back around to terminology as I think more about the framework. Mapping the Scholarship is a conversation threshold concept to one of our first year lessons highlighted to me that I’ve already been teaching threshold concepts. I’ve just never uttered the phrase “threshold concepts” to my students.

The annotated bibliography – a need for threshold concepts if ever there was one

Here in Champlain, we’ve recently wrapped up our Spring 1st year teaching round. Of all our information literacy lessons, first year spring sessions are one of the most “traditional” that we teach. We teach directly to an annotated bibliography assignment that students write based on the concepts of communities in their interdisciplinary curriculum. During one of my sessions I started by asking students why they thought their professor had tasked them with writing an annotated bibliography. The death stare ensued. Being completely comfortable with uncomfortable silence (and adept at using it as an effective pedagogical tool), I switched my question up to asking them if they could think of an example in their chosen profession where they might have to do a similar exercise. More silence. I called on any marketing majors in the room to help me find examples of using market research to bring a product to market, and with that it seemed to click. Suddenly, the annotated bibliography wasn’t a fruitless exercise that involved a frantic treasure hunt in the library – it was a real, tangible thing that they could see themselves having a stake in. So much so, that a creative media student raised her hand and asked me to help her figure out how the annotated bibliography could apply in the creative fields. When I offered grant proposals as a possible solution, I could see her pondering. And thus began our conversation about how an annotated bibliography was not a checklist of sources – but a collection of some of the best works about a topic, that outlines to the reader, a conversation in published form.

Now, I love annotated bibliographies – they position information literacy front and center, right? But I also hate them. All too often, they become a checklist exercise, where students come to the reference desk and say “I need A BOOK about the Puritans – it can’t be a website, or a journal. It has to be a book, because my professor says I need books, and journals and maybe one website”. It becomes a glorified treasure hunt of our resources. But they never need help finding the website, right? Because a website is easy to find, no?

So, back in my classroom, when I send students off to find source types for the annotated bibliography, and in light of our conversation that an annotated bibliography is a conversation, I challenge students not to find “just” a website, but to find a website that adds to that conversation. I encourage them to think about the voice that they might find exclusively, or more commonly on the web. They look at me for a few moments, and I give them an example. “If I’m researching online gaming communities, what perspective am I able to find online that is unlikely to be found in a scholarly journal article, or in a book, or perhaps a newspaper article?” And in all cases, students were able to tell me that the voice of the gamer, or the first hand experience, would be the unique perspective. Or, if we’re looking at historical communities, we can get to a similar perspective through primary sources online. By moving the emphasis away from format and towards the perspectives in a conversation, students actually begin seeking, selecting and interpreting information for purpose, and not out of some assignment obligation. “Would I rely solely on the gamer’s online blog? Not in a million years!” I say. “That’s when I might seek out the scholar’s voice in our conversation”.

Because research is a conversation. And we want all the voices, right?

Reading the new framework, and seeing the Scholarship is a Conversation threshold concept specifically, I have heart that our industry is attempting to take a look at the real problems our students encounter on their road to information literacy. And I think we might be able to see that these threshold concepts relate to the exact issues that we help students with all the time.

Considerations and directions in information literacy instruction

This is a presentation I delivered fairly recently on considerations and directions in information literacy instruction.

Directions in Information Literacy from Alan Carbery

On the threshold of Information Literacy: using Threshold Concepts in IL

6014699888_4674de39b7_mSometimes I find myself getting way too excited about teaching information literacy. You can probably tell when I’m excited, because I’ll start to talk really fast. And get animated. I’m excited about a good search result. I’m such a librarian.

But I try and check myself when I get like this. Because let’s be honest, not many students are excited about finding stuff like librarians are. In essence, we mostly don’t meet mini-librarians in the making during our sessions.

And, often when I start getting excited about information literacy, that’s sometimes at the point when I can visibly notice my students slipping away. Maybe not their attention; but definitely their comprehension. Because we’ve reached the stage where they’re having difficulty grasping a concept. And I quickly remember that I’m not here to give students an MLIS degree in 60 minutes. I firmly believe that. I am not training mini-librarians.

And yet, maybe we’ve got something to learn from this mind-frame. In a basic way. The concepts or ideas that are like second nature to us librarians, but really tricky for others to grasp; what if we focused on these? What if we spent our efforts unlocking those troublesome, often abstract, concepts of research; would that make IL more contextualized and comprehendible?

Jan Meyer and Ray Land refers to these points as threshold concepts; ‘conceptual gateways’ that might lead to inaccessible knowledge, but once mastered: ‘a new way of understanding, interpreting, or viewing something may thus emerge – a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view’ (Meyer and Land, 2005, p. 373).

A recent article on Threshold Concepts in Information Literacy seeks to identify some threshold concepts for information literacy by collecting data from information literacy instructors. A number of concepts were devised, including: ‘research solves problems’ and ‘good searches use database structures’. The concept threshold below is especially relevant to us at the moment as we teach our first years about annotated bibliographies:

What makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article has nothing to do with how one accesses it… 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 (Hofer, Townsend and Brunetti, 2012, p. 403).

Hofer, Townsend and Brunetti do a great job of devising concept thresholds for information literacy, and because I often think that threshold concepts are unique to individuals, I’m sure there are more concepts that may emerge, based on our students’ experiences. And what’s the best way to identify these threshold concepts? From students themselves. By observing those moments when you’re losing your students. While observing your students in the midst of their research activities. Both in-class, and perhaps at the reference desk. And if we can focus on these troublesome, threshold concepts, and find ways to teach them, so that students’ perceptions are changed, aren’t we unlocking some of the doors to information literacy?

Just another way I think IL teaching is about teaching process, not product.


Meyer, J. and Land. R. (2005) ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning’, Higher Education, 49, pp. 373-388.

Hofer, A., Townsend, L and Brunetti, K. (2012) ‘Troublesome concepts and information literacy: investigating threshold concepts for IL instruction’, portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 387-405.

Photo Credit: renedepaula via Compfight cc

edlibbs 2.0

So it’s been a while since there have been any ad-libs about about education or info literacy around these parts. And there’s a reason.

So, some of you might know that right at the start of 2013, I took a job offer to move from Ireland, to Vermont, USA to take up an Assistant Director position in Champlain College Library, with specific responsibility for IL. I’ve been here over a month now, and I’m still adjusting to new surroundings. Mostly, though, I’m really enjoying the changes that this opportunity has brought me.

So, aside from saying goodbye to family and friends back home, this really wasn’t a difficult decision. This role allowed me to look further (and closer at the areas in IL that I’ve been excited by for the past few years: student-centred, inquiry-driven learning; IL assessment (both programatic assessment, and student assessment); and fostering the ideas of the librarian as a teacher.

I get to be a leader again. I’ve held this role before, and wanted to get back to that place. I get to lead our team of teaching librarians.

I’ve lots to learn in this role. And that’s what excites me the most. I get to work with a great team who are innovative, excited and engaged. And we talk about our instruction. Every week. And we get excited. And draw on white boards to explain what we’re thinking. It sounds kooky. But I’m loving it.

So things have been quiet here. But I’ve found my bearings, and I’m ready to go. Edlibbs 2.0. Here we go.

Triggered: info literacy inspired by the movies

A tiny aspect of my research into using PBL and POGIL in information literacy involved looking into the actual trigger or problem used. The trigger is important in that it needed to inspire, focus and direct inquiry using a whole host of information resources, but the actual ‘solving’ of the problem was not the focus. For that very reason, I guess pretty much any trigger could work, as long as students are able to pull a research idea from it.

I’ve experimented with a few triggers for various subject areas now. I’ve tried case-based, images, videos. I’ve tried toy props, lego bricks, and computer hardware. I’ve tried triggers that are loose, open-ended, and open to interpretation. I’ve given triggers with clear, definite and focused topics a go. It’s actually part of the fun of delivering a POGIL session. Choosing and developing triggers for use in a POGIL session lets me be a bit creative in the classroom. Recently, I delivered a number of nursing info lit sessions and used the movie trailer below as our trigger.

This one worked really well. Better than I had expected. I was a bit apprehensive about using the same trigger with all streams of nursing (general, intellectual disability, psychiatric), but with a little bit of reassurance, students realise that the triggers are prompts, and can be used as inspiration to find research on a number of loosely connected topics.

Using triggers in IL teaching has lots of implications. At their most basic, they provide a kick-off point for students to engage with information within the IL session. They mean that the teacher librarian does not have to rely on generic, and less-than-engaging overhead demonstrations; we all work to a common theme.

Also; it makes you want to see movies you haven’t seen yet. That too.

The Library, the librarian and the MOOC

It’s been tumbleweed city around this blog for the last while as I finished up my dissertation. You can expect lots of blog posts over the next while as I break my research down into blog-able posts. Teaching IL through PBL and POGIL coming soon!

And instead of just taking time away from learning, I’ve found myself enrolled on two MOOCs/online courses. I signed up for Statistics 101, but decided this was a little bit heavy for a post-dissertation come down. The weekly emails make me feel a little bit guilty though. I have also signed up for Google’s Power Searching, mostly out of curiosity – curiosity to see what Google have to say about searching Google. I admit to not being behind on the classes, but I’m still enrolled and participating still.

And that’s where I find myself with MOOCs at the moment; curious. It seemed that MOOCs (massive online open courses) were everywhere over the past few months. You might be forgiven for thinking that they would quickly and dramatically change the way teaching and learning occurs. The most commonly known MOOC provider, Coursera, is close to 1.5 million users! Interestingly, TIME magazine online suggests that only a fraction of users who sign up for a course actually complete it (Hmm, I’m guilty of that one!). I guess time will really tell the tale how MOOCs will play out, and how exactly they’ll impact education.

But let’s for a minute imagine that they have longevity. And that things like iTunesU become more common place in education. What implications might that have for libraries, and librarians? (Might it have any?) And what about offering a MOOC looking at the area of information literacy? What about collaborating with a non-library MOOC to introduce elements of IL into “the curriculum”? As I re-read my last few questions, I’m reminding myself that these questions aren’t new to libraries or librarians, but the format, or delivery, has obviously changed.

So whether the MOOC continues to grow, or whether something new comes along, I’m sure we’ll continue to try and see how the library fits into the model. Regardless, I think ANCIL’s words ring true (for me at least): ‘While online elements offer useful reinforcement for students who need immediate help at a specific time (such as an approaching essay deadline), we believe that information literacy, as a fundamental aspect of learner development, needs to taught face to face’ (Secker, J, Coonan, E. (2011) A new curriculum for information literacy, Arcadia Project, p. 7, http://ccfil.pbworks.com/f/ANCIL_final.pdf)

Innovating Pedagogy: a benchmark for teaching and learning?

I’ve been reading the recently published Innovation Report from the Open University, Innovating Pedagogy 2012: exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers. You can access a copy of the report from here: http://www.open.ac.uk/personalpages/mike.sharples/Reports/Innovating_Pedagogy_report_July_2012.pdf

The report outlines 10 aspects of pedagogy that the authors believe may have an impact on education over the coming years. Two things struck me about the report: they refer to aspects of education that have a direct and indirect correlation to libraries and information, and the report really does seem to summarise a large number of topics and initiatives that seems to be really prevalent and ‘of the moment’ on twitter, in the literature, etc.

According to the report, the 10 aspects of education that may a significant impact on education over the coming years:

e-Books: dynamic formats, and innovative uses of accessing and using ebooks

Publisher-led short courses: offering self-directed, CPD learning opportunities

Assessment for Learning: changing the focus of assessment from assessment of learning outcomes towards assessment for feedback to enhance the learning

Badges: Awarding ‘non-formal learning’ through a widely-recognised honour or badge system.

MOOCs: Massive open online courses brings open-access education to the masses.

Changing nature of academic publishing: the continued development of open-access scholarly publishing initiatives

Seamless Learning: learning across multiple locations, platforms, formats in a continued way

Learning Analytics: Emphasis on obtaining data to learn more about the learner and their contexts in an effort to improve learning opportunities

Personal Inquiry Learning: Focus on the learner as an active, exploratory learning agent involved in discovery and inquiry learning processes.

Rhizomatic Learning: learning occurring through multi-facets/avenues of inquiry, taking contexts and previous knowledge and experiences into consideration, using social and personal sources of learning to foster a personal learning network.

The report got me thinking a bit about a recent paper in College & Research Library News abnout ACRL’s top ten trends in academic libraries for 2012. Available here: http://crln.acrl.org/content/73/6/311.full.pdf+html

ACRL listed communicating value, IT developments, mobile environments, Patron-driven ebook acquisition, new schoarly communication models and user behaviours and expectations as some of the trends for libraries for this year. I can make some clear connections between ACRL’s trends and the Innovating Pedagogy report.

As always, I’m reminded that the divide between education and the role of the library is always, and should always, be linked and intertwined.


Sharples, M, McAndrew, P., Weller, M., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Hirst, T., Mor, Y., Gaved, M. and Whitelock, D. (2012) Innovating pedagogy 2012: OPen University Innovation Report 1. Milton Keynes: The Open University, http://www.open.ac.uk/personalpages/mike.sharples/Reports/Innovating_Pedagogy_report_July_2012.pdf


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