Information Commons: A Learning Community for Instructors

January 6, 2011 | News

Every year in the early weeks of the fall semester, Jean-Jacques Strayer, Assistant Professor of Hunter College, witnessed a familiar scene at the college library.  A crush of freshmen milled around the reference desk, waiting for help with their first research assignment. Their patience was rewarded, and after a quick consultation with the librarian, the students walked away with a slightly hazy blueprint for their paper. Other students never made it, missing out on an opportunity to learn valuable skills. Strayer was determined to change this scenario.

—Irene Gashurov

At CUNY, information literacy—the ability to find, evaluate, contextualize and communicate information using technology—is the focus of a wide range of instruction on each college campus. Teaching this critical set of skills early on in students’ careers has not only has helped boost their GPA scores but has also proved to be a powerful intervention tool for improving student retention and graduation rates. At Hunter, freshmen courses might touch upon information literacy, but the real task of introducing it falls largely to librarians, who offer high-tech information literacy workshops and one-on-one consultations throughout the year. In fact, the foundational English 120 course links its 90 sections to specific librarians. But how can a handful of librarians impart their useful knowledge to students when there are 1800 freshmen in the English 120 course alone?

As Strayer stared at this conundrum, the answer came to him in the form of a logistical objective. If he could open the bottleneck that formed at the reference desk each fall when students come seeking help with their first research assignment, he would have found a way to better support their learning.

Together with a team of Hunter College library faculty—Associate Professor Brian Lym and Assistant Professor Lauren Yannotta— Strayer set out to design a new resource and he focused on the group that could make the greatest impact: the adjuncts that teach the 90 sections of the English 120 course. The resource, a digital repository of educational media, would help instructors teach information literacy and share best practices with one another. The site is also intended to be the locus of an interactive learning community designed to promote collaborative research sharing, teaching and assessment across the curriculum. Moreover, the tutorials would conform to standards set by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, CUNY’s accrediting body.

“We wanted to make a rich, interactive site that will have potential to reach the greatest audience,” says Strayer. “We knew that if we succeed in engaging instructors, our primary audience, students will have greater exposure to learning information literacy.”  Adds Yannotta: “It’s teaching teachers to teach information literacy. Our premise is to start with fundamentals, so that librarians can then expand on the complexities.”

In the summer of 2009, the team received a Faculty Innovations in Teaching with Technology grant from Hunter College President Jennifer Raab. In December, they launched the information commons on the Hunter College homepage.

Teaching Your Teachers Well

The Web 2.0 information commons contains the best educational multimedia tools in information literacy today. Tutorial topics include plagiarism, evaluating sources, locating materials in the library—and other basic concerns of college undergraduates. What is more, each tutorial comes in the form of a so-called digital learning object, which is permutable with other digital resources—files, audio and images. The objects can be copied and pasted and strung together in any combination on the Blackboard site, at which point the e-learning product is ready for classroom dissemination.

Strayer, Yannotta and Lym identified the best peer-reviewed sites and wrote reviews on each site’s interactivity. “We saw this project as an effective way of establishing our presence online and connecting with faculty and students on a very large campus,” says Lym.

Yannotta believes the information commons gives students a grounding in research before they make their visit to the library. She advises the teachers she works with to prepare students for the library by assigning a tutorial on a subject such as primary versus secondary sources. “Come to the library with this knowledge and we’ll show the students how an expert would do it,” she says.

The team understood that it wasn’t enough to develop a resource without getting faculty to integrate it into the curriculum, so they designed course-specific Libguides, software for transmitting course content, and made all of commons freely accessible to the world.

Marketing the commons was the next step, and the librarians have been each reaching out to faculty at other departments. This spring before the start of a new semester they will be conducting a workshop for the English 120 adjunct community on using the LibGuides to teach information literacy.

As word of it spreads, the commons has been winning adherents. “What I like about the information commons is that my explanation might not be the one that could help the students,” says Assistant Professor Wendy Hayden about using the interactive tutorials in her English 120 course. “The commons helps you bring your message home in a variety of formats in styles that appeal to every learning style.” The commons can also help students how to think. “At this point only teachers can comment on the space in the information commons,” notes Hayden. “I’d like students to use them. We teach students to think critically about everything on the Web.”

The next challenge is to cultivate a wider community of users by creating a site that addresses the needs of everyone at Hunter.  “You can’t just put it on the Web and walk away,” says Lym. “It’s going to be a project that will never have an end.”