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!




CILIP Youth Libraries Group unconference 19/3/17

On Sunday 19 March, CILIP’s Youth Libraries Group organised an ‘unconference’ at Richmond Library. As was explained at the beginning of the event, attendees of an unconference decide what will be discussed and lead the discussions themselves. So at the beginning of the day we were invited to suggest ideas for discussion, which were then used by the event organisers to plan a programme for the day.

The author, Elizabeth Laird, gave a short talk to launch the event. She talked about her new book, Welcome to Nowhere, about a family forced to flee during the Syrian civil war. She also talked about a collection of Ethiopian folk tales that she recorded and edited to make them accessible to children. They are available for free online – http://www.ethiopianenglishreaders.com/.

The first session I attended was on how to demonstrate the value of a school or public library. Ideas included:

  • sending termly reports to your line manager based on circulation data and ‘display interaction’ data (i.e. counting up how many times you see people interacting with a display)
  • ensuring students write the resources they’ve used in homework
  • citing research showing the benefits of reading (e.g. by the National Literacy Trust and Book Trust)
  • having a governor linked to the library
  • highlighting targeted collaboration with teachers, e.g. a book club that supports a particular curriculum area

The next session was on running events in the library. Want to get an author to come and speak at your school? Try and catch them when they’re on a publicity tour. Publishers also love to hear how the visits went afterwards. Another great idea was to invite feeder primary schools to events. Not only does this share the event with more people, it can be a good incentive for the more in-demand authors to come to your event as they’ll reach a wider audience.

In the afternoon I joined a discussion on knowing and developing your stock. Lovereading4kids and Books for Keeps were both mentioned as good sources of book reviews, recommendations and more. Apparently, Peters suppliers also allow those who sign up to see book reviews without having to buy books. Literary prizes, such as the Wellcome Book Prize and the Branford Boase Award, can be a good way of scouting out new books. Finally, keeping teachers abreast of new stock is important and then encouraging them to read it by, for example, challenging them to read a teen book over the summer.

I also attended a session on information literacy. Discussion focused initially on how to teach students about fake news. This IFLA poster was suggested as a good resource:


By IFLA (http://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And breakyourownnews.com, a fake-news generator, could come in useful for displays.

The discussion then moved to the problem of plagiarism in schools. Teachers are increasingly seeing plagiarism in pupils’ work. However, the frequency with which it is occurring is also making it harder to crack down on. This is clearly an issue that needs addressing by both teachers and librarians.

Finally, mention was made of two ways in which secondary school qualifications are now including an information literacy component:

  • A-level history coursework requires students to undertake independent research
  • GCSE biology students have to reference works they have used in lab reports

This blog post has given a taster of what was discussed and some of what I took away from the event. I really liked the ‘unconference’ format and the informal approach (make-your-own name badges and bring-your-own cake). And it was a great opportunity to network with other librarians, authors and publishers.


Supporting Young People in the Digital Information Age: report on event at CILIP 30/11/16

On Wednesday 30th November 2016, I attended an event organised by CILIP’s Information Literacy and Information Services groups: ‘Supporting Young People in the Digital Information Age: the Role of Libraries in Promoting Transition Skills’. The event was held at CILIP’s headquarters in London. It was a really useful chance to share ideas and meet other librarians in schools, universities and public libraries. The following account is a report on the event that I wrote for the Information Literacy Group.

Today’s event started with a talk by Natasha Skeen, Community Liaison Librarian at The Hive, University of Worcester. Natasha’s talk focused on how she supports Key Stage 5 school students in their independent learning. The Hive is both a university and a public library. As such, the public benefit from longer opening hours and access to resources (including on-site access to electronic journals) that they might not have in other public libraries. Natasha said she starts by reminding students of the benefits of reading books. Then, to help them navigate, or ‘decode’, the kinds of book they’d be using for research, she explains some of the academic jargon (Latin terms, ‘peer review’, ‘abstract’) and how to use reference lists and indexes. Moving on to newspapers and social media, she cautions students to look for bias but also uses them as an example of how to write succinctly. Can you tweet the message you’re trying to give? Moreover, she shows students how to trace the sources of statistics so they can check them. When it comes to internet research, Natasha looks at evaluating sources and Google’s Advanced Search, including features such as being able to search by file type. She also recommends using university libraries’ subject guides for curated lists of websites. For access to online journals, Natasha points them to the Directory of Open Access Journals, Google Scholar (useful for citation searching, particularly if students are expected to use recent resources) and Access to Research (online access to publically-funded research at participating public libraries). Finally, she also reminds students that librarians might also know the best resources for something or other means to get information (e.g. interlibrary loans) and can help with things like academic writing. She advised public librarians interested in schools outreach to get in touch with Heads of Sixth Form, EPQ Co-ordinators and teachers, especially Heads of History as there is more of an emphasis on independent research in the new history curriculum.


After the talk, David Haynes of City University of London asked if Natasha discusses online safety, e.g. with regard to privacy and social media, with school students. Natasha pointed out that online safety is usually already taught by schools and mentioned Internet Safety Day (7th February) as a useful opportunity for raising awareness. Natasha was also asked if she’d noticed that students are more stressed, to which she replied that this is something she’s noticed from the students (over 2000!) that she has taught information literacy skills to.


In the next session, Simon Finch and David Bowles, Librarians in the Information and Learning Team at Bexley and Bromley Shared Library Services, talked about their work with local 6th form EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) students. Some of the groups are quite large, which makes it difficult to give targeted advice to individual students, however they try and include ‘worked examples’ based on a list of students’ topics supplied beforehand by schools. In their talk, Simon and David emphasised the need to remind students about what public libraries hold and offer as many students had not used one recently. In their sessions, they stress the continuing value of books and demonstrate how to use the library catalogue to find books. They also talk students through the online resources available to them. Access to Research, for example, gives free online access to publically-funded research at participating public libraries. The initial search for articles can be done anywhere but students must come to the library to read the full text. (And they must use a library computer to read the articles, although they can print them.) And yet, they also acknowledge that much material students might need could be in FE College Libraries to which they might not have access, suggesting a need for more liaison between 6th form heads and FE Colleges. Finally, Simon and David also talk students through how to assess resources and reference them. They summed up by saying that dialogue with teachers/librarians is important as what is required will vary, and that students showed interest during the sessions and said they were useful.


Next, Elizabeth Bentley gave a presentation on Teen Tech, a national STEM and innovation competition aimed at pupils from Y7-13. She focused on the Information Literacy Group’s work with Teen Tech to come up with the Research and Information Literacy Award. Students entering for the TeenTech Awards can also be entered (by their teacher or librarian) for the Research and Information Literacy Award, which rewards use of high quality information and a suitable bibliography amongst other things. The ILG provides freely available resource sheets for schools undertaking the award, including guidance on intellectual property, Google search strategies and evaluating information. The 2016 awards were the first complete cycle for the ILG award and the 45 entries showed relatively poor evidence of IL skills. However these are still early days. And certain barriers might be standing in the way of more entries from schools, such as school staff awareness and understanding. Furthermore, as one participant pointed out, unless teachers support the initiative it won’t go ahead. However, the prize of £1000 to the winning school should be a good incentive! Another participant asked whether the judges give feedback to entrants. Elizabeth said they are thinking about this. Finally, there was a discussion about the fact that the term ‘information literacy’ is not widely understood outside the library community – many teachers/senior leaders in schools haven’t heard about it. It was suggested that greater government endorsement could help rectify this.


In the discussion session, participants were invited to share experiences, tips and ideas. Katy Waters from Poole Libraries talked about her organisation’s recent acquisition of a 3D printer and floated the idea of linking up with Teen Tech. Another participant stressed the value of ILG’s resource sheets for the Teen Tech awards and the need to promote them.


Then, Amy Icke of The Girls Day School Trust (and formerly St Paul’s Girls’ School) and Linda Kelley of St Paul’s Girls’ School talked about how they support sixth formers undertaking Senior Scholarship (SPGS’s equivalent to the EPQ qualification). They said they start by giving a one-hour talk to students at the beginning of the Senior Scholarship programme. It can be difficult to differentiate for different subject areas in one hour. However, they ask girls to put their subjects on post-it notes and then can use these in examples and/or give specific advice in follow-up material. Amy and Linda started by showing us a mind map made using the app Bubbl. This showed the range of topics they needed to cover in one hour, which was quite large! They then showed us a list, which was made using Padlet, of different resources that can help students doing their projects. For example, it recommends EPQ guides created by the universities of Manchester and Birmingham and the Open University’s Being Digital activities. Amy also mentioned The Girls Day School Trust’s videos for students and parents on internet safety – Live My Digital.


Amy then talked more about her research into approaches to information literacy training. She described an apparent gap between teenagers’ knowledge of information literacy skills and application of them. Indeed, according to a recent Ofcom survey, teenagers’ information literacy skills tend to go down as they get older. Amy suggested that doing information literacy training with smaller groups would help. And at a conference she attended, the researchers talked about auditing skills before training to see if they had the right approach. Finally, Amy also talked about a placement she did at Queen Mary University London, where she learnt about ‘free writing’, a technique used by researchers before starting their research, in which they spend five minutes writing everything they want to find out without stopping. This could be a useful technique for students to try before embarking on independent research.