Open Journal Systems

World Libraries | Volume 20 | Issue 2 | Johnson

Developing an Information Literate Student: The Case of the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Faculty of Engineering
Allison Dolland and Richard A. Dawe

Abstract

Any subject librarian wants to help a client achieve their research goals. The client in turn must be able to conceptualize and articulate the parameters and requirements (e.g. depth of study, length of report, timescale) of their research. Unfortunately many clients (students), particularly at the undergraduate level, are ill-prepared for scholarly research (or sometimes do not even want to be taken out of the comfort zone of 'not thinking'), especially in the digital environment. They expect subject librarians and faculty supervisors to guide them through every step in the process, sometimes with little personal input. This paper examines the approaches used to develop the research skills of information needy students at the Faculty of Engineering of The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is written from the perspective of an academic with 37 years worth of experience and a faculty liaison librarian. The study provides insights into experiences and successes of academic librarians from small developing countries as they attempt to improve student information literacy.

Introduction

The revolution in information and communication technologies has created a new paradigm for tertiary education. The Internet has brought to the global society an almost infinite amount of information (Global Neuron 2005) which needs to be effectively harnessed by the professional for working at the frontiers of their trade. This rapid evolution in technology means that all, including engineers, must now engage in the continual pursuit of knowledge. They must keep pace with change and be able to fully participate responsibly and effectively in professional communities (Sheppard et al. 2008). However, just acquiring technical expertise is not sufficient because, particularly nowadays, safe and ethical approaches to problem solving, an increasing focus on sustainability, as well the mastery of the requisite soft skills, are also necessary (Nair, Patil and Mertova 2009; Welsh 2005). Driven by these changes the modern university must prepare engineering students to operate in this new world order.

One key to professional survival is the ability to locate relevant and reliable information in the shortest possible time and be able to absorb it and use it to the benefit of the immediate project. Driven by the need to develop this particular skill in engineering students, members of faculty, communication specialists and librarians are partnering at the Faculty of Engineering, University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus to help develop an information literate student fully capable of harnessing the power of the new knowledge economy. This paper explores the research skills required by students from the perspective of the librarian as well as from the faculty member. A brief examination of the strategies used to develop these skills among students of the Faculty of Engineering at St Augustine Campus in Trinidad is conducted and suggestions for the future are presented.

About the UWI

The UWI is the oldest, fully regional institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth Caribbean (Brereton 2011). It was established in 1948 and now spans more than 20 countries in the English-speaking Caribbean. The St. Augustine campus boasts faculty and students from over 40 countries and collaborative links with over 60 universities around the world (UWI 2012a). It offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree options in Engineering, Humanities, Education, Law, Medical Sciences, Agriculture, Life Sciences, and Social Sciences. The UWI network of libraries spans the region.

The UWI Faculty of Engineering

Teaching began at The Faculty of Engineering during 1961/62 academic year and to date has produced almost 8000 graduates (UWI 2013a). The Faculty offers undergraduate and graduate programmes in five departments: Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, and Geomatics and Land Management to 1,425 undergraduate students and 1,290 postgraduate students (UWI 2013b). International accreditation of UWI’s Engineering programmes has helped create a culture of continuous quality improvement in the Faculty (Sankat 2004) and its support services. Thus programmes are accredited by leading professional institutions including The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMeche), Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET), The Institution of Chemical Engineers (ICheme), The Joint Board of Moderators (JMB), The Energy Institute (EI), Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and The Geological Society of London (GSL). Of specific relevance to the current discussion is the rapid evolution in the electronic resources and services offered by the University Libraries, particularly in the last decade, and the strides made in the area of information literacy instruction.

Information Literacy Skills Development

Many attempts have been made to define information literacy, and to devise strategies for developing the associated skills for harnessing the power of information. The result is a multiplicity of definitions (Kerr 2010), and inherent in each are its defining standards and associated policies. These have been developed at international, national and institutional levels and have as their natural corollary customised approaches to achieving defined goals. In academic libraries, there have always been efforts at educating users in how to access resources. The digital age has transformed the research landscape so that library instruction now has to take on new dimensions to deal with the proliferation of information sources and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, and lightning-fast (sometimes) connectivity. Information literacy initiatives in higher education have taken a variety of forms, seeking to integrate skills development seamlessly into the learning experience, aligning the need for information for a purpose, and how to seek, evaluate and create new information. Successful information retrieval in the academic environment however requires much from the student. The ability to navigate in cyberspace and negotiate hypertext multimedia documents requires both the technical skills to use the Internet as well as the literacy skills to interpret the information (UNESCO 2009), plus the resources of equipment, staff and finance. Creativity by a student, as well as the continuous pursuit of expertise in one given area of research, is also essential. Thus students must have the ability to think critically when problem solving. Underlying this is self-motivation to drive the student to leave ‘no stone unturned’ in arriving at the desired solution, including guidance during this research process by experienced members of faculty. Supplementing this guidance are the communication and information specialists who help the researcher develop and package their research product for its intended audience. These specialists come from the library staff. Mastering engineering requires familiarity with literature from multiple disciplines (Ackerson 2001) and possibly not in areas where their own education has resided. In developing information literacy standards for science, engineering and technology, the American Library Association 2005 states that these disciplines:

‘pose unique challenges in identifying, evaluating, acquiring and using information. Peer reviewed articles are generally published in more costly journals and, therefore, not always available. Gray literature requires knowledge of the agency/organization publishing the information. Much of science, engineering and technology is now interdisciplinary and, therefore, requires knowledge of information resources in more than one discipline. Information can be in various formats (e.g. multimedia, database, website, data set, patent, Geographic Information System, 3-D technology, open file report, audio/visual, book, graph, map) and, therefore, may often require manipulation and a working knowledge of specialized software (ALA 1997-2012)…’

There have been many studies examining information literacy development in engineering students both at the graduate and undergraduate level. These have shown that librarians, as they partner with faculty to build information resources to support evolving curricula, must also work together to build the bridge between the content and the researcher so that quality output is the result of every research project (Leckie 1999; Amekudzi, Lisha Li, and Meyer 2010; Messer 2005). Often, alas, this is a war of attrition as the engineering librarian strives to create an awareness of the importance of information literacy as a component of overall research capability. Critical to success is the embedding of information literacy in the curriculum, and that students seem most receptive to information literacy instruction when it can be tied to a current information need (Welker et al. 2010). Each presentation, workshop, and interactive guide must be contextualized to the discipline and the immediate need (Bracke and Critz 2001). Generic (stand-alone) programmes are not as successful since they lack the validation inherent in workshops conducted as part of a mandatory course or elective. The librarian must remain focused on the ultimate aim of the student which is usually to get relevant information in the shortest possible time to complete their research project, get a good grade and move on to the next assignment. Instruction must accommodate all learning styles and use a multiplicity of communication channels. Such efforts must be further supported by competent and user-friendly staff.

INFORMATION LITERACY AT THE UWI

The Early Years

The network of libraries at St. Augustine has always been considered of central importance to the successful achievement of the University’s mission, which is to advance education and create knowledge through excellence in teaching, research, innovation, public service, intellectual leadership and outreach in order to support the inclusive (social, economic, political, cultural, environmental) development of the Caribbean region and beyond. The University has articulated the desire for all of its graduates to be information literate lifelong learners. This focus on information literacy has greatly enhanced the potential for the success of any library-driven initiatives in this regard.

A common cyber-platform now consolidates and integrates the distributed technology and eLearning resources of The UWI. This facilitates the seamless exchange and flow of knowledge and information throughout the University’s geographically distributed centres (Bernard and Alladin 2011). A key component of this platform is the UWI Libraries Information Portal (UWIlinC) which facilitates 24/7 access to the regional network of libraries. This portal includes access to the University’s own intellectual output (UWISpace digital repository), valuable datasets, subscribed e-resources (journals, databases, e-books, etc.) and information on its holdings (catalogues, digital repositories, etc.). It is within this dynamic environment that information literacy instruction must take place.

The Libraries at St. Augustine have historically always engaged in library instruction and information literacy initiatives. Since the opening of the Main Library (now called the Alma Jordan Library - AJL) in 1970, students have been introduced to the services and resources of their Library through orientation tours and library instruction. Attempts at embedding library instruction in curriculum actually date back to 1969 (Clarke 1999) when instruction was incorporated into foundation courses aimed at developing oral and written communication skills. Such courses over time became mandatory. Not only did these programmes target full-time, part-time and evening university students, the presence of distance education programmes meant that library instruction had to also address the needs of off-site locations, including those in non-campus territories in the region and nowadays at home (Hosein 2001).

Successive working groups at the AJL have worked with vigour to recraft a unified information literacy strategy bringing to bear all of the expertise available at the St. Augustine Campus Libraries. These initiatives received additional impetus from the University’s 2007-2012 strategic plan which identified ‘information literate’ as one of the desired attributes of the distinctive UWI graduate in the 21st century (UWI 2007).

Approaches and challenges: The UWI St Augustine Faculty of Engineering

Concern for developing the research capability of students has always been a critical element of their eventual success. In verbal interviews with the faculty in the Engineering Faculty (both academic and teaching assistants), the faculty liaison librarian was continually told that were was a growing weakness in the initial research capability of many students. It was viewed with concern that the faculty has had to address the weaker engineering mathematical skills compared with students of some 15 years ago, so much so that remedial classes are now timetabled. The librarian was also told that some students display a lack of creative thinking and analytical skills, while others may lack the ability to apply theoretical concepts to practical solutions or communicate solutions effectively to their target audience. Some also seem to be unaware of the interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary dimensions of engineering research and are sometimes unable place their research in the appropriate context or deal with the relevant ‘softer’ issues. Some members of faculty (usually the more senior) have even gone as far as to say that some students are lazy, doing the minimum to get by and refusing to ‘read’ for their degree, and end with phrases such as ‘they are not taught to do mathematics and English sufficiently rigorously at school nowadays’. Another very common weakness identified by members of faculty is a lack of knowledge of the rules and protocols of scholarly research and writing. While aware of current information and communication technologies, many students do not know where or how to find peer-reviewed or scholarly information on which they can base original research; nor do they know how to correctly acknowledge sources. All of these factors can hamper performance.

At the Faculty, members of academic staff provide guidance in the development of the research capabilities of students throughout their studies. This guidance is supplemented by courses aimed at developing/strengthening the relevant skills. Prime examples of such courses at the Faculty are compulsory foundation courses, such as Communication Skills and Ethics at the undergraduate level and Research Methods at the graduate level. While, since inception, the Faculty has sought to develop these skills, the establishment of the foundation courses concentrated these efforts in an incrementally systematic and standardized way across all departments. Several other justifications for the establishment of these courses exist. One is tied to desirable attributes of a student in the discipline as defined by employers (Lawrence 2008) and accreditation bodies as well as relevant regional and internal accords within the discipline (Table 1):

Table 1
DESIRED SOFT SKILLS IN ENGINEERING—SELECT LISTING

Engage with research literature of the discipline Design and evaluate solutions for complex problems, and design and evaluate systems, components, or processes that meet specified needs with appropriate consideration for public health and safety, legal, cultural, societal, and environmental considerations Communicate effectively on complex issues by being able to comprehend and write effective reports, design documentation, make effective presentations, and give and understand clear instructions Function effectively as an individual and as a member or leader in diverse teams and in multi-disciplinary settings Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of engineering and management principles and apply these to one’s own work, as a member and leader in a team, to manage projects and in multidisciplinary environments. Understand and commit to professional ethics, responsibilities, and norms of professional practice *Recognize the need, and have the ability, to engage in independent learning for continual development as a professional Source: Select list adapted from ABET 2007; Seoul Accord 2008; IEA 2009

Another is the need for the engineering student to be able produce work that presents solutions to real world problems. They are challenged to bring to bear their active skills and knowledge sets, seek/synthesize new information, and demonstrate a mastery of the softer skills required to function as an effective professional. The University’s increasingly blended learning environment requires higher order information skills.

Project based learning has long been an accepted way of fostering self-directed research. This approach provides common ground for faculty members and liaison librarians at the UWI St. Augustine to come together and create opportunities for developing information literacy skills. One such opportunity at the Faculty of Engineering is the final-year compulsory 6-credit design or research project which accounts for 20% of the total weighted final year GPA (UWI 2012b). This student-driven capstone project does not involve traditional course delivery and assessment (Sarjusingh, Mohammed, and Castellanos 2009). It however requires students to be able to conduct independent research which necessitates successful navigation of a vast array of available print and digital resources. Information literacy initiatives of the Engineering Division of the AJL are quite compatible with this focus on creating independent, life-long learners capable of harnessing the power of information to reinvent themselves, while acquiring new skills and knowledge sets as technology rapidly evolves around them.

Prior to delivery of any information literacy product at the Faculty, members of academic staff are asked to verify the desired focus of the instruction. These include but are not limited to:

  1. Services of the Library
  2. Resources of the Library - Exploring the Library$rsquo;s website
    • UWILinC (federated search environment)
      • Locating books/ebooks
      • Locating journals/ejournals
      • Locating databases
      • UWISpace (institutional repository)
    • Research Guides (LibGuides©) and Handouts
    • Special Collections and West Indiana
    • Locating past examination papers
  3. Navigating the online research environment
    • Identifying discipline specific databases
    • Identifying and locating specialized document types of relevance engineering (patents, standards, technical reports, etc.)
    • Developing effective search strategies
    • Evaluating web sources
    • Benchmarking thesis literature
  4. Mastering the required bibliographic style (Chicago 16th edition — Author Date System)
    • Avoiding plagiarism
    • Endnote
    • Turnitin
  5. Assignment based instruction

During the last five academic years (2008/2009 to 2012/2013) under review, 112 face-to-face information literacy workshops were held for students. This was in addition to 12 orientation sessions. These sessions are held annually for new (Year 1) and returning (Years 1 and 2) undergraduate students and are part of the Dean’s Programme to provide guidance on all student matters of importance to their success.

Of the total number of information literacy instruction sessions, 68 were held for graduate students and 44 were for undergraduates. Classes for graduate students were both conducted as part of the compulsory graduate Research Methods course and for specific MSc programmes. Over the period under review, the primary focus of instruction for 1st year students was options (a), (b) and (d). Interventions for 2nd year students focused on options (e), © and (d). For 3rd (final) year and graduate level students the preferred areas of focus were options ©, (d) and (e).

When planning for sessions, members of faculty were also asked to identify the preferred delivery method for their requested session. Available options were classroom-type lecture/demonstrations and hands-on workshops in computer laboratories. 90% of the sessions were interactive workshops held in computer laboratories at the faculty or in the Library. Only extremely large classes would opt for the classroom-type sessions, since time did not permit splitting the classes, and the preferred teaching facilities (computer laboratories) were limited in capacity. 95% of the sessions conducted were embedded (taught during class time as part of a course) and were therefore scheduled by the relevant faculty member. This underscores the fact that a library must be able to respond at the point of need or miss a critical opportunity to prove the relevance and usefulness of information literacy as a whole. The level of embedding of instruction also clearly demonstrates that any information literacy product must be made relevant to a current and specific information need otherwise students, especially undergraduates, do not see the connection with the content being delivered and their own reality as a student struggling to complete several assignments simultaneously. Since content for these sessions is customized for any topic, subject, course or assignment, it can easily be embedded in the student eLearning environment, providing seamless access. Online research guides (LibGuides©) are another channel for reinforcing some of the key messages of information literacy instruction. The library is also experimenting with social media and video presentations in this regard. Of particular note is the fact that a few faculty members felt that the print and electronic guides and the other support created by the library were sufficient for the students to grasp the necessary concepts and that no instruction from the library was necessary.

Apart from faculty workshops scheduled during class time, the AJL Engineering Liaison Librarian mounted specialized sessions on Endnote© to help students grapple with the need to engage in proper documentation practices. The related concepts in this area still remain ‘alien’ to many students who struggle to master the required bibliographic style. It is interesting to note that it is only this category of library-driven training that is always completely subscribed. Students want this process to be seamless and automated.

Support for information literacy skills development was facilitated by follow up individual and small group consultations when students desired personalized intervention. These were student as well as faculty driven. The Ask-a-Librarian online reference service provided another channel to service users and deal with related queries. In addition, the Engineering Division fielded an average 2,000 direct email queries from students annually during the period under review. In-house technical support staff was also often called upon to troubleshoot off-campus access issues. All these demands strained resources, but they led to rewarding experiences for all involved.

Information literacy efforts were supported annually by database vendors, who also made periodic visits and presentations to user groups (librarians, members of faculty and students) and supplied online guides which help to reinforce content delivered. They also provided premiums which reinforce ownership of discipline-specific databases which are often allied to professional/accreditation bodies. The library also provided branded tokens for attendees at the session. To heighten student interest, surprise giveaways during sessions were effective in creating some level of enthusiasm.

Providing information literacy instruction presented many challenges. Classes were and continue to be generally too large, and the packed curriculum often made it impossible get additional hours of instruction to facilitate the more ideal smaller group sessions required to reinforce skills being taught. In addition, teaching space was also in short supply as the university and its libraries struggled to accommodate the more than 100% increase in the student population in less than a decade, with only a modest concurrent increase in the plant and equipment.

Relationship building has been a key to successes achieved in integrating information literacy into the curriculum at the Faculty of Engineering. Marketing strategies have not been generic. This is because the library will have only marginal success with the information literacy initiatives if they do not get faculty buy-in. In this war of attrition, members of faculty have to be targeted at the individual level. In every department of the faculty, there are power brokers, those that can influence opinion and become advocates for the library. To enhance the credibility of the instruction being offered, librarians at the UWI are being encouraged to sign up for the University’s Postgraduate Certificate in University Teaching and Learning (CUTL) to enhance teaching skills and improve the quality of the information literacy product.

Another contributory factor to the success of efforts in the area of information literacy is the presence of the library liaison librarian on the Engineering Faculty Board which has allowed the AJL to be privy to plans that impact on its ability to service the changing information needs of its clientele and enable the faculty liaison librarian to keep information literacy on the front burner.

The library is poised for another phase of development in its information literacy initiatives. This is the creation of an online information literacy course which has been advocated by the university librarian. A team with members of all four regional campuses has been working for the last year on the development of this course which will provide the blueprint for future information literacy activities across the regional library network.

Conclusion

Much has been done to further the development of information literacy initiatives at the UWI, but it is clear that with the severe limitations posed by staffing and finance, instruction must more fully enter the virtual world. The new millennium, and a mandate by the local government to develop tertiary education with a 40% to 60% participation rate of the community, will force the university and its support services to expand their current reach. Resources must be dedicated to producing a different type of information literacy product which can be delivered to students, using all new communication channels, and accommodate all learning styles. Product development will need to be informed by empirical data on the information seeking behaviour of students in the University’s unique cultural milieu. The hiring of an Information Literacy Coordinator at the AJL in 2012 augurs well for the development of such long term strategies. Greater focus on assessment is also critical if one is to measure the success of ongoing initiatives. The use of citation analysis presents one option for assessment (Denick and Layton 2010). The advent of a promised university-wide standardized instrument for assessing information literacy skills (Oakleaf 2008) will constitute a benchmark in development. ​

As information literacy initiatives at the UWI Faculty of Engineering continue, the greatest challenge will still be how to engage the ‘wired’ generation. Born to an era of ubiquitous Internet access, immersed in social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and countless tools, and bound to their smartphones and tablets, this will not be an easy task. Instilling information skills still depends on the capturing the attention of the student long enough to convince him/her of the relevance of quality information to his/her goals, and awakening that investigative spirit which is the driver of the knowledge worker in the global information age.

Acknowledgements

We thank all the staff and students of the Engineering Faculty who have contributed to the discussions reflected here. Special thanks to the University and Campus Librarian, Ms. Jennifer Joseph, for her continued support.

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About the author

Allison Dolland is Head User Services, Campus Libraries at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
E-mail: allison.dolland [at] sta [dot] uwi [dot] edu

Richard A. Dawe is Professor Emeritus in Petroleum Studies, Chemical Engineering Department, Faculty of Engineering at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
E-mail: richard.dawe [at] sta [dot] uwi [dot] edu



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