JCS 2018: From Digital Literacy to Independent Learning

On 30 November I attended a conference on digital literacy and independent learning organised by JCS Digital Resources, who supply e-resources like JStor and Massolit to schools and other sectors. The conference was at Aston University in Birmingham and brought together librarians and teachers from schools and HE, academics, suppliers and more. In this post I’ll highlight some of the main messages and if you’re interested to read more the full set of presentations can be found here on the JCS website.


The academic Jane Secker was the first keynote speaker. She started by providing definitions of digital literacy and information literacy. The new CILIP definition of information literacy is as follows:

Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to develop informed views and to engage fully with society.

And here is the JISC definition of ‘digital capabilities’ Jane quoted:

By digital literacy we mean those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society: for example, the skills to use digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; as part of personal development planning; and as a way of showcasing achievements.

I liked the fact that Jane included a definition of information literacy, even though the conference title uses ‘digital literacy’. As she pointed out, ‘information literacy’ can be applied to non-digital information resources and as such has a broader relevance to independent learning and research.

Jane highlighted aspects of digital technologies that students need to think critically about, including the fact that algorithms can be biased (she cited the work of Safiya Umoja Noble on this subject) and the filter bubbles that can skew our perspectives on an issue.

As Jane pointed out, there isn’t an easy answer to the question of how to teach information and digital literacies. These literacies aren’t just about knowledge – they’re also about skills, values and behaviours, which are hard to assess. And we can’t assume that teachers themselves have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach them. One practical suggestion would be to make DL/IL a component of teacher education courses.

And the more that we can share examples of good practice in DL/IL teaching, the more we can grow as a community of practice. This was echoed by Sarah Pavey, who said that the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign is looking for such examples.

Perspectives from Higher Education

As a school librarian it’s always useful to hear how universities are supporting students with information literacy. Hazel Rothera, Academic Development Team Leader at Oxford Brookes University, gave her perspective on students’ research and reading skills in the next keynote presentation. It was interesting to hear that whilst it’s easier now for students to find information, they are still daunted by the complexity and challenge of academic research. The title of Hazel’s presentation – ‘Can’t you just give us 2 sides of A4?’ – came from a comment that a student made after looking at the reading list for an assignment and baulking at the idea of reading books.

Hazel explained a concept that she’s used with students to help them approach academic reading: the Information Ladder. The idea is to start by reading something accessible (e.g. an encyclopedia entry or a good quality website) on a topic and then work your way up to reading academic research. I like to recommend Britannica School online encyclopedia to students starting their research for this very reason. Furthermore articles are differentiated by reading level, you can easily look up definitions of words, there are indexes to articles – in short, many tools to help students orientate themselves and get the essential broad overview and keywords.

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There isn’t space to cover everything that Hazel talked about but I’d strongly recommend taking a lot at her presentation. Other topics she covered included students’ preferences for ebooks vs hard copy and strategies for supporting academic reading, such as annotated reading lists.

There were talks by representatives from the University of Sheffield, University of Southampton and University of Birmingham during the rest of the day.

Initiatives in secondary schools

Dr Graham Gardner, librarian at Abingdon School, gave the first keynote presentation focused on school libraries. He made a compelling case for adopting three mindsets in our work as librarians: Teacher, Marketer, Technologist. The first involves trying to understand what motivates teachers (and students) and making our service responsive to their needs. As Graham argued, teachers’ priority is subject literacy – students getting to grips with the concepts and terminology of their subjects – so we need to be careful not to frame IL/DL as something that could distract from this. Given how time-stretched they are, it can be difficult to collaborate with teachers. But IL/DL needs to be embedded in lessons (so as to appear relevant to students) so we can’t afford not to work with teachers. The onus is therefore on us to provide lesson plans/materials that link to the curriculum and the all-important Assessment Objectives so teachers/students can immediately see the benefit.

As Marketers we need to be focusing on benefits rather than features of resources. Graham gave JStor as an example: we could list its many features to students but their response is likely to be ‘so what?’ So instead we should highlight how JStor gives them free access to content that might otherwise be behind a paywall. Likewise to encourage them to use a subject guide, start with ‘to save time’ or ‘to get maximum marks’.

Finally, as Technologists we can make digital resources work for our users by making them easy to access and navigate. There are many authentication options now that remove the need to login with a password, even when accessing from home. Look into single-sign-on, referring URLs or Token ID, for example. Graham also showed us screenshots of his beautifully presented online subject guides and library catalogue homepage as examples of how to do web design. I later learned that he used Firefly to do these, which is the software we use in my school. I’m keen now to go back to my own Firefly pages and incorporate more images as Graham did.

There were so many inspiring examples of what schools are doing to promote digital and information literacy presented throughout the day. They have given me new confidence and enthusiasm to work on DL/IL at my own school. Here is a summary of some of the initiatives that were showcased. I’d highly recommend following up on any you’re interested in by looking at the slides on the JCS website.

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Donna Saxby’s presentation on her work with teachers on Y9 research projects at Kingham Hill can be found on Prezi and is well worth a read.

Another thing that struck me was the range of digital resources that schools are offering students, particularly online databases. Here are a few examples:

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Students are so lucky to have access to these resources, which bridge that tricky gap between the textbook and scholarly research. I can’t help thinking that many schools wouldn’t be able to afford to offer more than a few of these, if any. However, it is also true that a couple of resources that are well used can still make a huge amount of difference. And initiatives such as Access to Research, which provides free access to paywalled academic research through participating public libraries, can be a substitute for resources like JStor. Perhaps a session on open access digital resources would be of use at a future JSC conference?

As Elizabeth Hutchinson’s talk showed, digital educational resources can also include software such as Google Hangouts, Skype, Flipgrid and Padlet. For example, Elizabeth used Hangouts in a Geography lesson where students spoke to people from across the world in India and the US. These lessons included a DL/IL component around questioning: how to create a good question and the difference between closed and open questions.

Finally, John Lenahan from JStor gave a useful presentation on JStor’s ebooks. There are currently over 4000 open-access ebooks on Jstor. The top ten most popular OA ebooks on JStor can be seen here. As ebooks usually cost over £100 each it’s a real gift to libraries to have free access to them. JStor also allows libraries to purchase ebooks using an ‘Evidence Based Acquisition’ model and is going to introduce a subscription model for schools later in 2019/early 2020. Turnaway reports (showing students who have tried to access an ebook but not been able to because the institution doesn’t have a subscription) could be useful for seeing if a subscription would be used or not.

All in all it was such an inspiring day and many thanks are due to JCS to organising it so well. I would echo what Elizabeth Hutchinson said in her blog post that it would be good to see more state schools attending next time. However, the next best thing to attending is being able to read all the presentations and the fact that JCS made them all available on their website so quickly was a great help. I look forward to JCS 2019!