Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Information literacy and library reference reading for online courses

Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre
and
Sue Dowling
Library
Murdoch University
    The development of online teaching and learning has created requirements for "online readers", or sets of Internet accessible reference readings. However, is it feasible to aim towards reference reading which is entirely Internet based? Will a "wholly online reader" enable the desired teaching and learning outcomes? What are the staffing, technological, financial, organisational and management issues? This session of TL Forum seeks to explore these issues, drawing upon concepts in information literacy as a foundation for reviewing teaching and learning outcomes.
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Introduction

"Library reference reading" is a familiar and widely accepted component in the conduct of university teaching and learning. Its acceptance reflects the considerable importance we place upon developing abilities to search through recorded information to find, evaluate and act constructively upon relevant items. Development of these abilities, now generally recognised collectively as information literacy, is especially challenging in the case of online courses.

With online courses, defined here as units of study in which Internet based, computer mediated communications are an essential component, we have a special opportunity to enhance the role of "library reference reading". Since Internet access is specified as essential for enrolment, an online course may base its required reference reading activities upon Internet resources and services. Whilst this gives scope for higher level information literacy objectives and more effective and efficient services, Internet based required reading incurs risks. These risks or limitations arise from the potential for problems with the technologies, and requirements for students to be well prepared with computer literacy and information literacy skills.

This article examines some key questions in "library reference reading" for online courses, with particular reference to a distance education context in which students may rarely or even never attend the campus with which they are enrolled. How do we maximise the benefits whilst countering and minimising the risks? Is it feasible to aim towards reference reading which is entirely Internet based and does not require campus attendance? Will a "wholly online reader" enable the desired teaching and learning outcomes? What are the staffing, technological, financial, organisational and management issues?

Reference reading for distance education

In a paragraph introducing their discussion of the question, "Are our academic libraries ready for the Internet generation?", Smith and Phillips (1999) depicted a traditional, on campus induction into reference reading in this way:
Before the Internet's arrival, students were routinely sent off to the library by teachers and professors with little afterthought. In preparation for their research, students were given an orientation tour of the library during the first week of the semester, one that included a short class on how to use the online catalog. Afterwards, they were largely on their own for the rest of their collegiate careers. If they encountered a problem, they could consult with a reference librarian or their professor. In those days, what was there to worry about?
However, off campus students could not be "routinely sent off to the library". Commitments to these students were fulfilled by two main avenues for access to reference reading. Firstly, distance education courses usually provide a "reader" or "booklet of readings" containing full text reprints, to supplement the course's printed study guide and prescribed text book, and substituting, at least in part, for conventional access to library resources. Secondly, libraries in distance education institutions built up a range of off campus support services which emulated, to variable extents, the services available to their on campus students (Cavanagh 1997, Clark and Storr 1988, Fulcher and Lock 1999, Haricombe 1998, Orr and Appleton 1997, Stephens and Unwin 1997, Wilson 1994, and Vautier 1999; see Endnote [1] for Australian examples of university library services).

Both of these avenues can offer insights to help us with the tasks of getting "ready for the Internet generation". Distance education course design experience provides familiarity with techniques for effective use of a concise, pre-selected set of reference readings. Distance education library experience gives insights into how to provide off campus support and a "safety net" for network based delivery (Alexander 1999).

Writers on distance education library services draw attention to the overlap between information resource needs and other, more personal, kinds of support needs. For example, Vautier (1999:54) quoted this response from an external student to a library needs survey question, "...no additional reading resources are needed, the problem is lack of contact with other students and my motivation". She commented that "...some of the students were very pleased that someone, anyone, had bothered to contact them..." (Vautier 1999:107). Distance education literature contains many observations about requirements for technology support, for example:

...there were two foci of frustration among students in this course. The first focus was technological problems; students without access to technical support were especially frustrated..." (Hara and Kling 1999)
Case studies and surveys of students provide important reminders for teachers in online courses, about needs for kinds of support other than academic and subject oriented tutoring. Case studies also remind us that students' apportionment of study time may be quite different from the teacher's expectations, for example:
Learning to use IT took relatively more student time than researching information sources and gaining content knowledge. Students spent more time learning to use various information technology or presentation tools and/or communicating with information and computer consultants than in communicating with the instructor and content specialists. (Alexander 1999)
Whilst distance education is an important source of experience, online reference reading eventually will relate to all students and all modes of study. In many courses at Murdoch University, the growth in demand for off campus access to networked services is due mainly to full time, internally enrolled students taking up modem access to supplement their on campus access. This trend should enable economies of scale from distance education and online delivery sharing in some services, but we may encounter problems due to lack of coordination of organisational and functional relationships. For example, teaching by Murdoch University's School of Engineering and School of Law includes "online internal" units, which enable enrolments with minimal or even no requirements for campus attendance. However, as these students are enrolled internally, they are not counted when assessing central administration and Library services allocations for distance education, although they tend to create additional work loads for these services.

Another aspect of the context is that traditional, print based distance education is likely to come under increasing pressure to adopt online or digital resources as substitutes for print, owing to expectations about increased efficiencies and economies. Curtin University's recent review of its distance education program included the following in its recommendations (Bottomley 1998):

Recommendation Nineteen
The Distance Education Unit should investigate the cost effectiveness of the adoption of online digital just in time printing of data-based distance education materials.
These expectations may be questioned, for example by Inglis (1999), "is online delivery less costly than print...?". He shows that there are a variety of answers depending on context and interpretation. However, the trend is towards greater adoption of online, or as Fox, Herrmann and Boyd (1999) express it, "breaking the grip of print". Distance education is a potential beneficiary, needing the new techniques for delivery and communications, including online reference reading. In Murdoch University's case, there is considerable scope for reworking existing distance education units. Handbook 2000 lists 404 conventional external unit offerings compared with only 69 online external unit offerings [Endnote 2].

We need to draw together course design and library experiences from distance education, link with internal students' demands for off campus access to networked services, and develop flexible adoption of online resources as substitutes for print. Key themes in designing for effective implementation of online reference reading include information literacy, improved approaches to support for off campus users, and the availability of online publications.

Information literacy

Experience with the delivery of reference readings to distance education students provides an insight into an important dilemma. Supply of preselected reference materials in a "reader" is generally quicker, easier and more economical, compared with supplying the same or similar items as library loan requests or photocopy requests. However, when supplied with a reader, and usually facing constraints with other kinds of access to references (for example, Hooke 1999), distance education students tend to become confined to a small, preselected subset of reference information resources for each unit of study. Some commentators perceive a weakness in many print based distance education courses due to their being "so 'self contained' that there is little imperative for students to read more widely...." (Hall and McPherson 1997).

Attainment of skills in information literacy and independent critical thinking is likely to be seriously impaired by lack of experience with larger scale access to information resources (Stephens and Unwin 1997). Typically, Australian university libraries [Endnote 1] provide literature search services as a contribution towards countering this deficiency. However, these are expensive on an individual basis, and raise questions about the extent to which a librarian's time and expertise may be substituting for learning exercises and skills development which students should undertake for themselves (Parnell, 1996).

Concepts from information literacy offer scope for a way around this dilemma in distance education. Adopting "online readers", or sets of Internet accessible reference readings, will enable a large increase in the reference information resources which may be linked into each unit of study. Also, use of online readers may be integrated with guided access to various kinds of online search engines, enabling "do it yourself" literature searches. However, increased quantity and improved searching will not be enough.

Information literacy helps us to proceed further in planning a systematic approach to new ways of "doing library reference reading". Information literacy identifies a range of objectives in reference reading, from accessing, finding and retrieving information to analysing, evaluating and applying purposefully (ACRL 1999, Adler 1999, Bruce 1998, CITL 1999, Tapper 1997). Identification of objectives is important in designing and planning for academic aspects of information literacy, for example in the following matters [Endnote 3]:

Information literacy developments in teaching and learning require services from libraries, computing or network or information technology units, staff development and flexible delivery or distance education units. To optimise their contributions, and to help minimise the risks in going online, improved approaches to services for off campus users will be required.

Approaches to services for off campus users

Planning and delivery of online units requires the development of services to be coordinated and optimised. For example, could the work of designing learning exercises and selecting sets of websites or online publications be wasted if lack of user support leads to unresolved "how to use the technology" problems, which prevent students from undertaking the exercises? Should we maintain extended hours helpdesk services and capacities to deliver book and photocopy loans, as a form of "insurance" to cater for students who encounter unexpected technological difficulties, especially amongst off campus users? Information literacy objectives can help us to plan an academic approach, but questions like these remind us that in practice, attainment of objectives will require coordination of a number of services. This section outlines seven principles for a coordinated approach to integrating different kinds of services.

1. Commitment to coordination and collaboration

Writing about user training in the computer literacy area of information literacy, McCausland, Wache and Berk (1999) noted the need for coordination and collaboration between different services within the University of South Australia:
A major obstacle to systematic approaches to developing computer literacy in all students was the location of responsibility within the institution. Responsibility for computer literacy sat somewhat uncomfortably between being, on the one hand, a corporate responsibility located within service units such as Information Technology Services Unit, the Library or the Flexible Learning Centre or, on the other hand, an academic responsibility at the Division, School, course or subject level.
Help desk and consultancy support services for students are also subject to organisational dispersion and gaps in coverage. This increases the complexity of coordination and collaboration tasks, because user training and help desk services should be complementary and interacting positively. Therefore a fundamental importance must be accorded to university wide commitments to coordination and collaboration, which is like a prerequisite for the other principles outlined below.

This requires recognition of the roles of staff in libraries, information technology service units, and flexible delivery or distance education services units, and facilitation by clearly specified and agreed allocation of responsibilities and resources. In particular, writers on "student support" for online learning often appear to neglect or underplay the role of library help desk and computing help desk services (for example, Devonshire et al 1999, George et al 1999, Hicks 1999, Oliver 1999).

2. Traditional services are essential complements to network delivery

The experience which Australian university libraries have gained in "traditional" services to distance education students [Endnote 1] provide the basis for this principle. Providing help services from an inquiry or reference desk, and having capacities to deliver printed matter via book and photocopy loans serve two kinds of purposes: One of the basic premises behind this principle is an expectation that for most classes, the proportion of students who require special compensatory services or assistance will be relatively small. However, if a university plans to accelerate the change from traditional, print based distance education to online distance education, it would be prudent to maintain a reserve capacity and some flexibility, in case the proportion who seek special assistance is higher than expected. Coupled with technical help desk services, a capacity in traditional services may be a major contribution towards equity considerations in avoiding or minimising disadvantage to particular groups of students arising from the transition to online delivery.

Another area of some reliance upon traditional services arises from cost factors. To contain costs incurred by students, unit coordinators could use judicious combinations of print based readings, online web based, free from the Internet readings, and online controlled access readings. As the print medium has a statutory licence framework already in place, many online distance education units will continue to use a printed reader, until the time when new laws and agreements relating to copyright and licensing for online reproduction are in place, as discussed below.

3. Facilitate Internet access

With rapidly increasing adoption of Internet access in the general community (ABS 1999) and the maturation of the Internet Service Provider industry, universities will be able to re-orient their efforts in off campus access. Instead of being a primary provider of Internet access for their students, universities can change to a facilitative role which helps students to obtain their Internet access via any appropriate provider in their geographic region. This may be the university, or a private provider, or a community facility such as a student's local public library.

With less emphasis upon being an access provider, universities could give more attention to helping students who encounter access difficulties, or who are members of equity groups, as outlined above, and to improving the effectiveness of Internet based teaching and learning, as suggested below.

4. Integrate services to include computer literacy and technical help desk

Green's Campus Computing Project 1999 survey reported that "...'Providing adequate user support' ranks second again this year: just over one-fourth (28.2 percent) of the survey respondents identified user support as the most significant challenge for their institutions, up from 26.5 percent in 1998 and 25.0 percent in 1997." (Green 1999). The importance of user support via help services is emphasised by increased dependence upon computer technologies in library services, and by the way that access to networked information has become a major role, or even the major role, for personal computers.

Some institutions have restructured their technical help desks into a wider integration, usually under their library's umbrella (Atkinson, 1997). Links to user training, library inquiries, study help and instructional design are a feature of service integration, which facilitates improvements based upon feedback between the different services (Atkinson 1998). For example, James Cook University's InfoHelp offers "...a 'one-stop information shop' unique to JCU. InfoHelp can help you to resolve computer problems, locate information for essays and assignments, develop research skills - all in one place." [Endnote 4]. A recommendation for an integrated help desk appeared in Curtin University's 1998 review of its distance education program (Bottomley 1998):

Recommendation Ten
The OTL consider the operation of an off campus help desk to act as a single point of contact for off campus students faced with real or perceived problems regarding their programs of study. (Bottomley 1998)
The concept of an "off campus" help desk as a centralised service, complemented by "on campus" help desks at faculty or department level, as implied in the Curtin University recommendation, could be an appropriate kind of integration for universities seeking to rationalise their distance education services, whilst not changing their organisation of on campus technical help services. Since libraries and distance education units typically have little or no scope for increased expenditure upon services to off campus students, rationalisations of this kind may be the main avenue towards improvements in support.

5. Documentation, user training and help desk services are complementary

Information literacy support services can be provided via documentation, user training and help desk services. In general, documentation is the least labour intensive provision, whilst inquiry or reference or help desk services are the most labour intensive. Whilst it would seem obvious that we have to aim for maximum complementarity, in practice matters may be more complex. For example, some kinds of reference inquiry or technical help requirements may be too complex to be resolved, for some persons or even many persons, by provision of documentation and user training.

The difficult matter is that for any particular problem or task, some persons will attain an appropriate competency using documentation ("do it yourself"), others will require user training ("be taught how to do it yourself"), whilst others will require desk services ("help me to do this", or "do it for me", or even "I will pay someone to do this for me"). Thus we need a range of complementary services, and it may place students at risk if this principle is not observed. Nevertheless, some writers appear to give little recognition to the role of help desk services (for example, Devonshire et al 1999, George et al 1999, Hicks 1999, Oliver 1999).

One of the difficult new issues in help services is the extent to which university staff may be drawn into technical support for an Internet Service Provider other than the university, or into work which ought to be the responsibility of the student's computer dealer. This is a particular dilemma for universities which attempt to project themselves as "Internet friendly" and thus try to be very supportive with networked information access problems (Atkinson 1998).

6. Roles in course design for librarians and information literacy specialists

Reviewing the management and economic implications of library support for electronic courses, Hall and McPherson (1997) commented that "Increasingly, funding bodies see the Internet and educational technology as a means of reducing or eliminating libraries". The concern amongst university library staff about the intentions of "funding bodies" is understandable, matching similar concerns encountered in faculties. However, when relating "the Internet and educational technology" to course design, the principal concern amongst library staff is for partnerships and improved teamwork with faculty, as expressed in key quotes from the following writings:

Campbell (1999)"information coach" for team teaching in a web based classroom
Alexander (1999)"library-information consultant"
Fulcher and Lock (1999)"distance learner's information service"
Heller-Ross (1996), Clark and Store (1998)"active partnership between faculty and librarians"
Eustis and McMillan (1998)"develop partnerships with other institutions, vendors, and publishers to create new technology-based information delivery systems"
Macauley (1999)"librarians as members of doctoral candidates supervisory teams"

The writers cited above provide many ideas about involvement of librarians or information literacy specialists in course design teams, staff development for online teaching and learning, student user training, documentation, bibliographic services, inquiry desk services and help desk services.

7. Priority for online collection development and promotion of its use

Requirements for reference reading to serve online courses is just one of many pressures upon libraries to prioritise online collection development. However, activities in this area will need to be linked with other changes. Hall and McPherson (1997) expressed the view that university libraries had to:
... move from providing 'traditional' library services to distance education students, to meeting the information needs of students undertaking university study over the Internet...
Meeting the information needs of students will require promoting the use of online references, both within a library's own collection, and from the Internet generally, using customised guides to subject areas and even for individual units of study.

One special priority for off campus users is that access controls, where required, should admit them readily, whilst accommodating access via any Internet Service Provider (ISP) from anywhere in the world. Many or most universities are seeking to implement access systems which will enable each student to use his or her unique login name and password for all of the university's networked services they are entitled to access by virtue of their enrolment, from any on campus or off campus location, via the university or any other ISP. One of the motivations towards simplified access is to reduce the load upon user training, help desks and inquiry services.

Another special priority is likely to emerge as universities prepare for competitive discounting of distance education courses, based upon lower consumption of the physical infrastructure resources of a campus. Libraries will need to be ready with their contribution towards that scenario.

Availability of online publications

Successful use of online readers depends also upon the amount of suitable material which can be made available online to staff and students, located at any on campus or off campus workstation. Rapid growth in the amount of teaching related online reference material is a well established trend. For example, for Green's Campus Computing Project 1999 survey reported that "library based course reserves readings are available on the Web at one-fourth of the institutions, up from 17.9 percent in 1998" (Green 1999). The attractive features which assure the growth and future for "electronic literature resources" have been summarised succinctly by JISC (1998): However, JISC (1998) also detailed the limitations hindering the trend towards online publishing. The main issues in relation to online reference reading for students are user support and training, as discussed above, and copyright and licensing,

Copyright and licensing

Free to the Internet readings are not a problem in relation to copyright. Students read from the website which provides the readings and it is not necessary for copies to be placed upon the web server for the unit of study. However, lack of reliable online availability of references may be a problem [Endnote 3]. This kind of problem could be overcome by republishing the materials on a server operated by your own university, but it may be difficult, time consuming, expensive or even impossible to obtain a permission from the copyright owner. Online republishing of print or CD materials encounters the same problem with copyright permissions.

Reprinting of copyrighted materials in "hardcopy" readers is facilitated for educational institutions in Australia by the statutory licence provisions of the Copyright Act (1968). However, at present there is no statutory licence enabling world wide web reprinting. Development of a legal framework is in progress with the "Digital Agenda Bill", which among many other matters, includes these intentions:

The existing statutory licence scheme for copying by educational institutions has been extended to the reproduction and communication of copyright material in electronic form. The extended scheme for the electronic use of copyright material has been drafted broadly. The key to the new scheme is flexibility based on agreement between educational institutions and the relevant collecting societies (Attorney-General's Department 1999a).
Further action on the Bill awaits the Government's consideration of a report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, published in December 1999 (Attorney-General's Department 1999b). This may take some time, and after passage of the Bill occurs, educational institutions and collecting societies will require time to negotiate the next step, the implementation of remuneration schemes [Endnote 3]. Statutory licence fees payable by educational institutions for "online reprints" are likely to be significantly higher than is the case with hardcopy reprints.

In practice, use of the prospective new statutory licence may turn out to be similar in overall cost to licensing of access to the copyright holder's or publisher's online versions. This prospect will place additional pressures upon libraries to deliver quickly in a key area of online collection development, the purchasing of licensed access to publisher's sites.

Whilst copyright has been regarded as "one of the major constraints to providing study materials online" (Fox, 1999), we can be optimistic about the new options. The new uncertainties will not be in the area of "what can we reprint online or gain access to online?", but in the area of costs, and in trying to optimise the mix of online resources when drawing from a range which is between "free or very low cost" to "prohibitively expensive".

Conclusion

The key question, "Is it feasible to aim towards reference reading which is entirely Internet based and does not require campus attendance?", does not have a simple answer. Answers are of the form "It depends...". Nevertheless, the possibilities for a relatively unqualified "Yes" are emerging rapidly. It is likely that many universities and their libraries, whether a significant provider of distance education or not, will accelerate their trends towards more online access to references, including off campus access and "fully online" for some or even many units of study.

However, the important point about the questions is not to look for "yes or no" answers. It's more important that through these and similar questions we draw attention to the full spectrum of services and requirements, in particular the inquiry desk and the help desk, which underpin the idea of "fully online".

Endnotes

  1. For Australian examples of university library services for distance education students, see the pages by:
  2. Handbook 2000. Murdoch University.
    http://wwwcomm.murdoch.edu.au/handbook/units/default.html
    Use the unit search facility to count the numbers of units in a selected category, eg online. Some units are offered more than once per year and thus for any particular category the number of unit offerings is larger than the number of units. A few online units are internal only, which leads to small over-estimates in counts of online external units.

  3. Some issues and techniques for "online readers" are outlined at:
    http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/guide/plan/online-reader.html
    http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/guide/plan/reader/effective-use.html
    http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/online/deliv-pol/copyright.html

  4. James Cook University, InfoHelp. http://www.library.jcu.edu.au/InfoHelp/ [Accessed 28 Jan 2000]

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Please cite as: Atkinson, R. and Dowling, S. (2000). Information literacy and library reference reading for online courses. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/atkinson.html


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