Keynote Speakers

1996 California Academic & Research Libraries (CARL) Conference

Esther Grassian

(Photo of Ms. Grassian)

Electronic Services Coordinator
UCLA College Library
P.O. Box 951450
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1450

Phone: 310/206-4410
Fax: 310/206-9312



"Doing the I.C. Limbo...And Trying Not to Slip!"

I am honored to be one of three keynote speakers at this year's CARL Conference. I'm going to begin by talking about the "Limbo" and why it is in the title of my talk. Then I'll go on to talk about emerged and emerging technologies, about information competency (i.c.) and what it means, about assessment, accreditation and professional development, as related to information competency. I'll end with strategies and ideas on how we can stay on our feet in an i.c. world .

Let's begin with the limbo. How many of you know how to do the Limbo? For those of you who don't, the Limbo is a combination of a West Indies dance and athletic event. Two people hold a bar at either end, and the idea is for others to slither under bar one by one without touching it or falling. I've read articles describing people doing the Limbo with three glasses of water balanced on their noses, or limboing under a flaming Limbo bar. Where did the Limbo come from? One theory states that it originated as a West African tribal initiation. I'd say that's pretty analogous to our current technological state. Don't you feel like every time you learn some new piece of software, hardware or networking operation, you've just managed to slither under a flaming limbo bar--your back is breaking, your legs are trembling, and they 're lowering that darn bar again! So I'd say we're in a constant state of "technological initiation."

Now what exactly is our current technological state? What technology has alrea dy emerged and what has yet to emerge? Let's talk first about emerged technology. Who here has a digital watch? What about a microwave oven? Who uses an ATM? These are all examples of emerged technology which were scary and astounding new technology at first, but now are quite commonplace. What about technology which has just emerged and is not a transparent part of our lives? Cable modems have just emerged, but at $35-40/mo., they still can't compete with commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs). What about the "No Hands Mouse" described in the August issue of Wired?--it's $260 and has two foot pedals that you use instead of a mouse you operate with your hand. The same issue of Wired describes the "Key Tronic Wireless Touchpad" for $200--a wireless 104-key keyboard that can operate a computer anywhere from 4 to 50 feet away from it.

OK--that's just emerged technology; what about "Not-Yet-There-Ware?" Much more standardization is not yet there. For example, among external large capacity removable disk drives, the Syquest EZ drive use 135MB disks; Iomega Zip drive uses 100MB disks and the Jaz drive uses 1GB disks, but none of them can read each other's disks. So you can't share information among any of them. What we very much need related to technology is not software or hardware. It's universal information competency, like we have universal telephone competency. At what point will we see universal information competency? How can we speed up the process and at the same time teach "technology skepticism?" Will teaching information competency do the trick? And what is "information competency" anyhow?

Well, let me stop right here and say that I was surprised and delighted yester day when I heard Sue Curzon describe the incredibly well-articulated CSU information competency initiative. I didn't know about this wonderful effort before yesterday, so some of my comments and ideas may seem a bit out of step as a result. For example, I was going to ask how many people here had heard the phrase "information competency" before they saw an announcement for this program . Now I think the answer may be all of the CSU librarians, so let me ask the opposite question: How many of you had not heard the phrase "information competency" until you saw an announcement about this program? And how many of you have heard the phrase "information literacy" before?

To tell you the truth, when I first heard the phrase "information competency," I thought we might be settling for a lot less than "information literacy." After all, if you're illiterate, you can learn to be literate. But if you're incompetent, can you learn to be competent? So, I decided to check the OED to find out just what these words meant. The OED defines "information" as "Knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject or event." It defines "competence" as "capacity to deal adequately with a subject." I put them together and thought to myself that "information competency" wasn't so far away from information literacy after all. After all, the ALA Presidential Committee on Information Literacy defined information literacy as the ability to identify, locate, evaluate and use information effectively. My own definition of information competency, then, came out this way: "Being adequately prepared to handle knowledge which is communicated in some way." This is different from the CSU definition, but with either definition, how do we achieve information competency for librarians and for users? And how does it fit in with assessment, accreditation, and professional development?

As I see it, the key is identifying proficiencies, then testing and tutoring to achieve them. In order to assess learning, we need to have goals and objectiv es for achievement against which we can measure outcomes. In order to push for incorporation into accreditation standards, we must first know what it is we want incorporated. And in order to establish professional development programs , we need to know what we want to develop ourselves to do.

Technologically adept librarians will have a major role to play in this endeavor. We need these librarians to take the lead to define & redefine minimal, measurable proficiencies for many new technologies both for librarians and for users. And, they'll need to incorporate critical thinking throughout. In addition, they need to be out there training and helping their colleagues become proficient in new technologies and in teaching critical thinking skills which can be applied to them. In fact, teaching critical thinking is the librarian's unique and most valuable contribution. Computer trainers can teach "Lynx," "Netscape," HTML, email, and a host of other technologies. But it's librarians who know how to evaluate and think critically about information resources and who know about their relative value, no matter what the format.

So, once we have these proficiency lists in hand, we can develop goals and objectives based on them. Goals and measurable objectives are necessary if we are to assess learning outcomes, if we want to know if students have learned what we set out to teach. The objectives, of course, will change as proficiencies change. The goals are what we can lobby to include in accreditation standards.

Now you're probably wondering how the heck we can come up with these proficiency lists in this constantly mutating environment & how we can develop testing or assessment and teaching modules for them at such a fast pace. Well, I am at least the third person to recommend that we take a look at the s even different types of information literacy Shapiro & Hughes described in a recent Educom Review article, including social structural literacy, research literacy & critical literacy. Although you could argue that there's some over lap among them, there are detailed, paragraph-long descriptions of each, which could be adapted to serve as well-defined information competency goals.

We could also try emulating what a couple of CSU's have done--adapt to the digital age, the 5-year-old ACRL Instruction Section's Model Statement of Objectives for Academic Bibliographic Instruction, & get them incorporated into the curriculum. As a number of you heard here yesterday, CSU San Marcos has already done this for their campus. Information literacy is now a required element of many required general education courses at that campus. This is a great accomplishment and I urge you all to visit their Web site and check it out--the url is on your bibliography.

What do the rest of us do in the meantime, until we too are able to get to this point? How can we quickly develop and continually revise testing and tutorials for information competency skills even after we have proficiency lists in hand? I think our best hope to keep up in this environment is to use technology to teach technology & critical thinking. Right at the moment there isn't much available in terms of software for testing and tutoring in general technological skills and knowledge. One exception is a testing/tutoring program developed by Joy Luck--I didn't make these names up!--it's a program that checks undergraduate programming assignments and provides tutoring in areas they get wrong.

Software by itself, or software used to create CAI programs used to be our best bet in terms in using technology to test for and teach technology. But it takes an enormous amount of time, effort and money to create software and CAI programs, and it can take almost as much to revise them. On the other hand, it's becoming easier and easier to mount information on the Web, and Web access is becoming almost ubiquitous, at least in higher education. What kinds of information competency and digital skills and knowledge might we teach our users an d our colleagues via the Web? How hard would it be to come up with a list of general digital proficiencies? I came up with three pretty quickly, the first of which we teach in almost all of our classes in College Library. The ability to distinguish between a "data base," an "online database" and an "online system." The ability to distinguish between online systems and online gateways. And, the ability to use a mouse with a graphic user interface or GUI.

That's general knowledge--now what about knowledge specific to a particular area--the Internet, for example? Last month Carol Dichtenberg sent a message to BI-L asking librarians to tell her what Internet features they teach, which they feel prepared to teach, and which they feel least prepared to teach. Let's see if we can come up with some sample answers for Carol. How many of you feel comfortable teaching Netscape 1.2? How about 2.0? And wha t about 3.0? Now let's get even more specific--Raise your hand if you've taugh t people how to: Bookmark Web Pages? Create hierarchical bookmark menus? Evaluate or think critically about Web Pages? These last three items are not just answers for Carol. They're also items which appeared on a Netscape basic skills self-checklist I created for CL staff. There's a copy on the back of your bibliography.

I revised that checklist for the Web, and with the help of good HTML staff person at College Library, I created a very primitive instructional tutorial on our Web site, called "Teach Yourse lf Netscape 2.0." Questions on the checklist are linked to portions of guides I'd created earlier, on using Netscape 2.0, both for Mac and Windows 3.1, which had already been mounted on our Web site. Now I'm sure other librarians must be developing much more sophisticated and truly interactive instructional Web sites. But this small start does illustrate the fact that proficiency lists and self-tutorials can be drawn up rather quickly, even for specific versions of software, and can be mounted on the Web very quickly as well. Both librarians and users can raise their skill levels by using this tutorial site, but we need to go further for our colleagues, who, after all, need to teach users and answer their many questions. I said a few minutes ago that technologically expert librarians need to develop "I.C." proficiency lists for librarians and need to help train their colleagues to raise their skill levels, both in technology and in how to teach critical thinking skills.

How can this best be achieved? An immediate approach might be to gear at least some of our CE [continuing education] programs, workshops & classes, to proficiency achievement. These programs could be offered by professional organizations, like CARL or CCLI. They could be offered by library schools or offered by institutions, for example, the UC or CSU systems. Ideally, they would be jointly developed and offered in different venues.

And, a pool of technologically expert librarians should be recruited to teach, and should be paid an appropriate fee for teaching in these venues. There are endless demands on these people's time, and we shouldn't just expect them to volunteer their time and effort. We should support payment of their fees through registration fees, organizational dues, and institutional staff development funding.

Once we have this sort of ongoing continuing education up and running, we could consider a couple of approaches to formal acknowledgment of this effort. We could piggy-back on the proposed ALA post-MLS Recognition Program, which ALA is considering for managers. Why not lobby to have this extended to line librarians in various sub-specialties?

A second approach relates in my mind to a 1994 New Yorker column, where Adam Gopnik said that "..journalism is not a profession. It has no standards of admittance, no board of review." When I read that statement, it struck me that librarianship is missing one of those elements too. Graduation from an accredited library school could be said to constitute standards of admittance, but where's our board of review? I would suggest that we establish a board of review for a simple, non-cumbersome voluntary certification program for various subcategories of librarianship. It could be set up at the regional or state level through existing professional organizations, like CARL or CLA. It could begin with a pilot project focused on instruction librarians, since we already have a 1993 proficiency list--the Shonrock Mulder article in your bibliography. It just needs to be updated for digital proficiencies, and we must make sure that critical thinking is incorporated throughout.

So, we've talked about the need for i.c. proficiencies for librarians as well as for users, some examples of these proficiencies, establishing goals and obj ectives, basing assessment on these measurable goals and objectives, and how librarians might acquire these proficiencies. Now, how can we insert these information competency goals into the accreditation process? Well, first--how many people think the topic of accreditation is boring? I thought it was too, until I learned about the history and politics of higher education accreditation in this country, and what a mess it's in right now.

What is higher education accreditation? The Encyclopedia of Education defines it as: "the process whereby an organization or agency recognizes a college or university or a program of study within an institution as having met certain predetermined qualifications or standards." In addition, the process of accreditation is supposed to stimulate institutions to improve quality, usually through self study.

Where did it all begin and what kind of mess are we in now anyhow? Harvard, the first U.S. university, was founded in 1636. From 1636 to the end of the 19th century, there was no accreditation to speak of. By the end of the 19th century, there was quite a bit of difference among institutions. For example, the time required to get a degree could vary by as much as several years from one institution to another. So, people began to feel that some sort of quality control was necessary.

As a result, by 1924, six private regional accrediting agencies had sprung up, along with a national group that sort of oversaw them, called COPA, the Council on PostSecondary Accreditation. Their role, before WWII was to check on whether institutions were sticking to their missions. If they lost accreditation, all they lost was credibility with their peers. This was important, but not as important as money. After WWII, beginning with distribution of GI bill funds, accreditation meant approval for federal dollars, since the Department of Education decided to use accreditation as a test for awarding federal dollars. Everything was hunky-dory for a while, 'till the regional accrediting agencies began adding a couple of new standards to the traditional academic standards--diversity and a financial check for student loan defaults. Well, college presidents, like Thomas Dillon from Thomas Aquinas College here in California, along with some members of Congress, didn't like that, and put up a big stink. As a result, the new standards were watered down or withdrawn, COPA collapsed in 1993, and a proposal for a new national accrediting agency bit the dust last year .

Also, added to the mix now is a new non-regional accrediting agency approved last year by the Department of Education--the American Academy for Liberal Education. Their core curriculum standards don't sound too liberal: a focus on Western civilization, on traditional subjects, and on senior faculty contact with students. But, as of last October, 70 colleges had inquired about membership in this agency, and this agency can now essentially, award federal dollars.

So what's happening now? There's no national oversight of the seven accreditin g agencies. Increasingly, these agencies seem to be redefining standards on their own. SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools, for example, is very interested in learning outcomes. They want libraries to evaluate their collections based on learning outcomes. So, for example, a library might say that their collection in biology is adequate for a high learning outcome leading to a B.S., but the collection in psychology is not. They haven't had much luck getting libraries to do this yet, though.

This situation is good and bad for us. It's bad because there's no overall direction, so we may need to make many major efforts to incorporate information competency into accreditation, rather than just one. But it's also good. Since accrediting agencies are reworking standards on their own, this is our golden opportunity to try to insert i.c. standards into accreditation standards. We need to seize that opportunity now so we can get over the tipping point for universal information competency.

What is a "Tipping Point"? Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a very interesting essay on this topic in the New Yorker, which described the hottest new theor y among criminologists trying to explain the recent nationwide drop in crime. Basically, the theory is that social problems are like infectious agents and behave according to epidemiological theory. Once infections go beyond a "tipping point," they become epidemic. If kept below the tipping point, they don't ju st stay at the same low point; they may decline rapidly. One of Gladwell's examples is AIDS. Right now, there are 40,000 new cases of A IDS each year in this country, and 40,000 people in this country die of AIDS each year. This means that on average, each person with AIDS will pass the disease along to one other person within her or his lifetime. Gladwell quotes an epidemiologist who thinks that cutting the number of new AIDS cases to 30,000 a year, when combined with other behavior-change programs, "could potentially eradicate the disease in this country."

So the basic idea is that the effects of increased effort are not linear. All that matters is getting over or going under the tipping point. How does this relate to the topic at hand? I think that there must be a tipping point for information competency as there must have been one for telephone competency. We don't know what the i.c. tipping point is, though this might be a fruitful area for research, but I think there are two factors which could help start an i.c. epidemic. The first is a top-down factor which we've already talked about--that is, inserting information competency into accreditation standards. The second is a bottom-up factor-- exposure to computers in the home and schools.

Early this month, the LA Times published an article titled: "PC's Saturating Southland with 46% Ownership." This article described the Lopez family who had just bought a used IBM 486 computer for $450. Now the family gathers around to watch each night as the father, Joe Lopez, turns on the computer and fires up America OnLine. They're slowly gaining computer literacy by looking over each other's shoulders, but are they gaining information competency?

Probably not on their own. As we know, there's been a big push in California and elsewhere lately to get public schools wired and hooked up to the Internet. But there are very few librarians in California public schools, as we also know. So, can we count on teachers to help fill the i.c. gap? A recent article in Electronic Learning reported that over 50% of the teachers they surveyed did not feel prepared to use information technology in the classroom. This really isn't too surprising for California, since here teachers are only required to take a one-semester course in technology.

So, would you say, in general that teachers are information competent? Probably not, so why are we surprised that their students aren't either? And how can we help move people from computer literacy to information competency, assuming they are exposed to computers? I think we can help the process along, both top-down and bottom-up, and here's how. We need to mobilize ourselves through our professional organizations, in five ways. First, we need to develop information competency proficiency lists for librarians and users, and it sounds like the CSU's are strongly in the lead here. Next, we need to develop technology-based testing and tutoring. At the same time, we need to develop systematic CE to teach information competency proficiencies to our colleagues. We need to lobby accrediting agencies for inclusion of i.c. proficiency standards into accreditation standards. And finally, in our few spare moments, we need to look beyond the realm of higher education, go to public schools and offer to help teachers become information competent, so they can help their students. After all, some day their students will be our users, so indirectly, we'll really be helping ourselves as well. Yesterday, Betsy Wilson mentioned that the University of Washington is making just such an outreach effort to 700 teachers in the Seattle area. This (!) is the kind of effort we need to emulate. Now, I think that if we take some of the steps I've just outlined, and make much greater efforts to share information and communicate these efforts to each other, if not work jointly on them, we may soon see an information competency epidemic. If not, we may find ourselves ending up like Bernie in this Doonesbury comic strip, who went to lunch and found that technology had left him far behind. Thank you.

Bibliography relating to Grassian talk


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