Opening the framework: Connecting open education practices and information literacy

By | May 31, 2017

This post was contributed by Silvia Lin Hanick, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) and Amy Hofer, Open Oregon Educational Resources. You can find previous presentations, handouts, and our research team’s Delphi study on identifying threshold concepts for information literacy at our website, Thank you to Lori Townsend, University of New Mexico, and Sarah Cohen, Open Textbook Library, for providing early feedback on this post.

In our recent presentation at Librarians as Open Education Leaders and in this post, we make the case that librarians have much more to offer the open education movement than resources alone, and identify areas of productive overlap between open education practices and the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

We see two intersections between the ACRL Framework and open education:

  1. Librarians can open up our own teaching practice where it’s appropriate to do so. This is good modeling and good pedagogy.
  2. When disciplinary faculty use open assignments, librarians can support their efforts by scaffolding the information needs that come up in those assignments. We can use ACRL’s Framework to structure this support work because we’re teaching to the same big ideas that already belong to information literacy.

So what?

Why is it useful to make a connection between information literacy and open education? While we want to extend the conversation beyond resources, it’s worth noting that librarians are, on many campuses, leading the coordination, management, or creation of Open Educational Resources (OER). Since we are already a part of the conversation from a collection standpoint, we should join the pedagogical conversation. Librarians are, additionally, good advocates for open education practices because equitable access to content is a core professional value. We also share a longstanding interest in active learning approaches to instruction, and open education practices create authentic opportunities to teach our core disciplinary content.

Open education is simultaneously content and practice. The initial draw to OER is the potential to save students money, and librarians are often partners in finding, evaluating, and implementing OER in redesigned courses. But we can go further. Beyond OER – that is, the open materials themselves – there is also teaching content associated with open education, such as copyright and open licensing, attributing open content, or developing a professional online identity. These lessons can be enriched through a deeper understanding of information literacy concepts that dovetail with these topics. Going even further, the use of open licenses makes new instructional practices possible — practices that encourage active learning by students working in the open. Librarians can use open education practices and encourage faculty in other disciplines to do so as well.

Open education practices defined

Broadly speaking, the purpose of student deliverables is to assess whether they’ve mastered the learning outcomes. Your assessment practice doesn’t necessarily need to change – it’s how you get there that changes. How can you take existing assignments and add an open element?

David Wiley defines OER-Enabled Pedagogy as “the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you have permission to engage in the 5R activities.” The 5Rs, as defined by Wiley, are Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute. You can download the material, tailor it to your course, save a copy locally, and share it back out with attribution, all without violating the creator’s copyright because the open license gives you advance permission to do so. The 5Rs are the things that instructors like to do with their course materials but that range from difficult to impossible under traditional copyright. These permissions are exactly what is needed in order to get away from the copyright restrictions on learning materials that enable sky-high textbook prices and hinder student success.

Open education practices take the 5Rs one step further and consider how open licenses can change teaching and learning beyond selection of course materials. Not only are instructors using openly licensed materials to teach the course, but students are also contributing to and creating original openly licensed work that is shared back out to the commons. Wiley notes that OER doesn’t dictate that any particular pedagogy be used; any educational theory of choice can be combined with open practices. While that is technically true, we argue that open practices are not entirely pedagogically neutral because they encourage active learning techniques and place a high goodwill value on sharing.

Yes, it is a lot of work to redesign a course with open educational resources. Still, anytime you change your textbook you have to redesign your course. The potential for student savings with OER is very exciting. Peer-reviewed research studies show, moreover, that students usually do as well or better in courses that use OER, most likely because everyone has access to the course materials on Day 1. And yes, it’s even more work to incorporate open education practices into a course design. Instructors are motivated, however, by the possibility of more engaged students and better learning outcomes as a result.

Just as threshold concepts aren’t going to be the only tool in your pedagogical toolkit, open pedagogy isn’t going to be appropriate for every teaching scenario. In no particular order, here are four potential open education pitfalls to consider:

  1. Time. Open education practices take time and scaffolding and might not always work in one-shot instruction sessions. Librarians who don’t teach a credit-bearing course may need to wait for a collaborative faculty member to work with.
  2. Authenticity. Rather, whose authentic learning problem is it? For open practices to be meaningful, there must be a real-world audience and students must have a say in what they create and how they share.
  3. Privacy. Students have many valid reasons for not working in the open. Always provide an alternative option.
  4. Sustainability. Faculty engagement increases sustainability, but you don’t want to tackle a whole new authentic problem each term or else you’ll have to redesign the course each time. Is there a real world need for ongoing production of the students’ content?

If these pitfalls can be avoided or mitigated, open education practices can be a rewarding way to align your teaching to the values, like collaboration and access, that define librarianship.

Open information literacy instruction

Open education practices can work well in any discipline, including ours. How can librarians open up our own teaching practice?

Try asking this question of your assignments: Is there a real-world audience and need for the student contribution? Often, the audience can be future students in the same course. That’s an obvious real-world application for student work. It could also be readers of Wikipedia, the Board of Education for your college, future employers, non-academic personal networks, or curious strangers. There are infinite opportunities for the knowledge of the course to extend beyond its borders.

For example, when you want to know whether students did the reading, you may have them demonstrate their content mastery by taking a five-question quiz. With an open education perspective, students could instead be directed to write five quiz questions that will be added to the course test bank and used in future terms.

Any information literacy assignment or activity can potentially become an open assignment. To offer another example, Silvia gives her students a citation sleuthing activity using a New Yorker article. Here are a few ideas for opening up this familiar information literacy assignment:

  • Choose an open access article or other openly licensed content
  • Post the revised version (containing hyperlinks to source material) to a public place
  • Design an assignment that includes an additive element from one term to the next
  • Use Hypothesis or Genius to publicly mark up the article, leave comments, or add more data to support or argue with the author’s conclusions.

Either of these assignments will require different scaffolding from their “closed” counterparts. Students will need to know what makes a good quiz question before they write their own, or will need to understand the implications of diving into a comments-based conversation before publicly taking a position on an article. If there isn’t time to fully scaffold an assessment, consider dialing back: for example, our colleague Lori Townsend asked students to show how they would rewrite a Wikipedia article, without going so far as teaching them how to be Wikipedians. As with any assignment, rubrics, worked examples, and opportunities to practice and receive feedback will help students succeed.

Scaffolding open education

If you’re collaborating with a faculty member who is using open education practices, you will find opportunities to teach to the ACRL Framework. Here, we’ll walk through the information literacy frames and consider their connections to open education topics. This is not meant to be a complete list, but rather a starting point for thinking about where these two approaches complement one another.

Information Has Value

Students feel the sting of information’s commodification most acutely when it comes to textbooks. This is a real-life problem with a huge impact, more authentic than any practice exercise generated in an information literacy lesson. It’s a great opportunity to frame the problem in terms of information literacy concepts in the Framework, and propose open practices as a solution.

OER offer significant potential student savings because they are available for free online or in print at cost. When students learn about this, they want it! However, as with other information literacy threshold concepts, if we oversimplify the idea, students may stay on the surface of understanding without making a deeper shift in thinking. Making textbooks “free” by using OER solves the affordability problem but potentially introduces new misunderstandings.

A fuller understanding acknowledges the effort and labor – some compensated and some not – to create and produce the openly licensed textbook that can be accessed for free. Likewise, when we engage in open education practices and ask students to freely share their work, that doesn’t mean that we devalue it. In fact, if we want to be clear about the open education perspective, we need to state that one of the underlying assumptions of open education is placing a very high goodwill value on sharing. But we can also educate students about the way their intellectual property might fit into a context that creates monetary value as well.

Asking students to see themselves as contributors brings us to a powerful intersection between open practices and information literacy threshold concepts: supporting students as content creators in authentic settings. The threshold concept model suggests that students think and act like practitioners. They try on a disciplinary perspective and engage with a community of practice. This is completely in alignment with open practices that ask students to engage and contribute to real-world problems.

Authority Is Constructed and Contextual

When students work in the open, they need to position themselves as credible sources to the reader. How do other authors do this? Given the context, what will students need to establish in order to make a contribution?

For example, when students are asked to write their own textbooks, they are asked to confront the function of authority head on. A textbook is the epitome of an authoritative source in most classrooms. It’s common for faculty new to OER to raise questions about quality: “If it’s free, can it be any good?” (Of course, a copyright or open licensing statement has nothing to say about the quality of the work.) A free textbook authored by students will need to work twice as hard to be considered authoritative.

Students need to understand the reference points within the book that establish that credibility, then use that understanding to develop content that others can rely on to appropriately cover the topic. The Open Textbook Review Criteria rubric, developed by BCcampus and used by the Open Textbook Library, is one example of a tool that faculty can use to evaluate educational resources. This might also help students understand how to produce high-quality resources.

At the same time, students can develop learning materials that resist a normative worldview by using themes and images that reflect their own experiences.

Information Creation as a Process

Working in the open gives students first-hand experience with the process of information creation and dissemination. In some cases this can be a rough-and-ready experience. There are many good examples of students being asked to edit Wikipedia pages as academic assignments. Quill West, Open Education Project Manager at Pierce College, points out that students should take a screenshot of their edits because they might be reversed or overwritten before the instructor has time to see them. This is an authentic learning moment as students experience what it means to contribute to a format that is constantly in process.

On the other hand, open education practices might need to stretch a bit to help students make progress with this disposition: “Value the process of matching an information need with an appropriate product.” Most open assignments tend to specify the format in advance: write a blog post, create powerpoint slides or quiz questions, develop a textbook chapter, create a video tutorial for a future student. These are all very specific predefined formats and assigning them doesn’t give students the opportunity to match the information need with the appropriate product.

With so many other moving parts, open assignments benefit from as much structure as possible. But, can we think about when it’s appropriate to let students determine the best format for their open work? If we do not require them to produce a five minute presentation with slides, we might get a piece of stop motion animation, an infographic, or an interpretive dance. Perhaps a librarian role would be to work with faculty to think about assignments that are open-ended with respect to format in order to give students the opportunity to do this learning. This helps to avoid the pitfall of asking students to post inauthentic work in a public place.

Research as Inquiry

Open assignments give students a chance to participate in real-world research. One of David Wiley’s basic points about open pedagogy is that it’s a gigantic waste of effort to have students spend so much time creating work that goes in the garbage when they could be solving real problems. Engaging in practitioner processes has a powerful impact for students.

There are ready examples of having students do hands-on real-world science, but there are also great opportunities in other fields. For example, a humanities instructor at Portland Community College asks her students to participate in digital humanities projects online. Sometimes this means transcribing 19th century ship logs, or digitizing early 20th-century restaurant menus, or logging data from nature cams. She didn’t set up these research sites – they’re out there for anyone to participate in, and the assignment is to pick one and participate. Student responses are outstanding. They love that they are contributing to real research and go above and beyond the requirements because they are drawn into the real stakes of the project.

Librarians are well positioned to contextualize real-world work and show students where they fit into the overall process of knowledge creation.

Scholarship as Conversation

The previous frame is about involving students in doing real research in their field. This one is about getting feedback and communicating beyond the classroom. To give a couple of examples, this might be publication in an open access student journal, or blogging and commenting on other academic blogs.

Another example we’ve seen involves asking students to create a tutorial to help future students with procedures, tough concepts, or common misconceptions. In fact, the audience for a tutorial might go beyond future students. Silvia wrote a reflective blog post about her experience navigating the byzantine legal name change process in Brooklyn and she was surprised by the number of hits that page gets, even years later, from people looking for more information than is provided on the sparse city websites. Supply and demand may be basic terms for a seasoned economist, but a student newly learning these concepts may be able to provide a more nuanced definition that considers where he or she struggled in their understanding. Students can create and contribute work that helps someone else get closer to a new understanding. At the same time, students develop their own understanding that the process of arriving at new knowledge has more value when it’s shared. Inviting others into conversation with you gives meaning to the work that you did through sharing.

In fact, scholarship as a conversation might be where we can most effectively teach the value of sharing that is so central to the open education movement.

Searching as Strategic Exploration

This is the area where librarians are most comfortable in terms of ownership and instruction. Database demos – we got this!

For students to work in the open, everything they use has to be original content, openly licensed, or in the public domain. So in the context of open education, we’re guiding users into a realm of messier repositories and search filters by copyright status, which makes it all too easy to fall down a search rabbit hole. It’s crucial to offer the kind of guidance that we are already good at – helping students and faculty navigate to the relevant open content that will meet their needs.

Librarians are good at helping people find the stuff they need, but we also can go deeper. It’s not just the database demo but also clarifying the intentionality behind the “magic” of the search box: search results are not random. People make decisions about the language, structure, and algorithms that generate search results.

For example, there was a recent news item about LGBT videos being filtered out of the Restricted Mode on Youtube, even when the content was family-friendly (one creator had a video listing her crushes on female comic book or television characters) or innocuous (one filtered creator makes videos where he and his boyfriend compare gummi food to real food). This was not a glitch in the algorithm, but the intentional, if flawed, decision made by a person or group of people. Or, we can look at the subject categories in the Open Textbook Library, which briefly had a “foreign languages” category before correcting course and moving to “humanities and languages.” Rather than looking at this as a technical error, students should see the original subject heading as a reflection of ethnocentrism.

Taking an analytical approach to the way that information is structured in order to be findable applies to repositories of open content just as much as with all-purpose search engines and databases, and helps students make informed decisions about where and how to search effectively. Students can work in the open here, too. A few ideas are to have students contribute to user-generated tags, post their own work with open licenses and good metadata to increase availability, or create shared pathfinders (e.g. in diigo).

Librarians’ full plates

Librarians are frequent collaborators on campus OER initiatives, but all too often this work feels like an extra thing piled onto already full plates. Even worse, open education is sometimes the sole responsibility of the OER coordinator on campus rather than being integrated into what everybody does. One way to relieve this pressure is to think about ways that open education fits into the work that librarians already do. Rather than treat open education and information literacy as two separate areas of work (like Reference and the new 3D printer), we’re arguing that the two are compatible (like Reference and Instruction). Incorporating open practices into our existing information literacy instruction is a way to invigorate our content and develop authentic learning experiences.


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  1. Pingback: Reflections on OpenEd17 – Open @ CUNY

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